Good Medicine by Way of Paris and Taiwan: Thank You, Hou Hsiao-Hsien!

I may have the flu, I may have a voice like a gravel-crusher and a fever of 101, but I’m still here, propped up in bed editing Cyndere’s Midnight.

It may have had something to do with my diet of aspirin, soup, hot tea, cough medicine, whisky, and Airborne, but I was hypnotized and delighted by Flight of the Red Balloon, the new film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, which I watched while slumped on the couch yesterday afternoon. It’s one of the most visually inventive films I’ve ever seen, reminding me of the best light ever captured by Krzysztof Kieslowski.

And at the center, there’s Juliette Binoche, my favorite actress for almost two decades now, in a dazzling performance, one of her very best, which she gives while caught up in a tempest of a blonde hairdo that has to be seen to be believed. (It’s strange to see her blonde, since I imagined a “blonde Juliette Binoche” when I wrote about Cyndere in my new story. That’s what I told the cover artist for the book, although I don’t think you’ll see her face in the finished image….)

It also features one of the most effortless, convincing, natural performances by a child actor I’ve ever seen: Simon Iteanu is quite a discovery.

Hou pays obvious tribute to the 1956 film The Red Balloon, but there were nods to other films all the way through. I couldn’t help but notice that the film seems just as drawn to images of streetcars and train tracks as Hou’s own Cafe Lumiere (which was his only other film made away from home, in Tokyo).

There were even some very subtle visual jokes (either intentional or brilliantly accidental) referring to other films. For example, in the opening shot, a subway advertisement for Severance is visible, the title neatly “severed” by a lamp post… and the scene quickly wanders to follow a red balloon, the tether of which has been cut. Two jokes in one shot. Intentional?

After we pick up on the film’s vibe — following the fragile innocence and sense of wonder in a child, as he wanders through a complex adult world — a bus goes by advertising Children of Men, with Clive Owen’s face given prominence. That seemed too appropriate to be a mistake.

But that’s all in just the first few minutes.

Reading about the film, I¬†just learned that the end-credits song is a translation of a song made popular in China by the ex-wife of the late Edward Yang. That seems strangely appropriate, as young Simon Iteanu’s performance had me thinking about Yang-Yang from Edward Yang’s film Yi-Yi, in the way that he wanders with such innocence through a complex, intimidating adult world.

Already, I have two strong candidates for my favorite film of 2008 (the other being Syndromes and a Century.) This one is superior, by far, in its visual wizardry. Hou’s mastery of light, reflection, and composition have me suspecting that he may surpass Kieslowski and Wong Kar Wai as my favorite image-maker for the screen.

One shot, looking out a subway window, gives us two sunsets: One in the far distance, bright and filling the sky, the other in miniature… a second reflection of that same sunset, coming in through the window, bouncing back off the far window, and appearing reflected on the very same window we’re looking through. It’s the kind of image that makes me want to stand up and applaud the way that crowds so mid-song if they hear a transporting guitar solo.

And Binoche is fantastic, of course. The first time we see her, it’s quite a shocking appearance. I’ll leave it at that. This movie allows her to play some notes we haven’t seen from her before.

Did I mention she’s gone blonde?

I’ll be reviewing this for Christianity Today Movies. But first, I’m going to watch it again. Feeling sicker than I have in years, I’m grateful that this film came along and made me forget my troubles for two beautiful hours.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • http://coosacreek.org/mambo RevRick

    Jeffrey, I an insanely jealous that you’ve gotten to see Flight of the Red Balloon. As a Seattle-ite banished to Alabama, by the time I get to see it — if ever — it’ll likely be after several years. Was it a screener you saw?

    Hou, in my opinion, edges out Wong as an image-maker (though it’s really close), and rivals Kieslowski. I am always awed by those exquisite, static opening shots in “3 Times;” makes me want to get my copy back from the guy to which I loaned it and watch it again. I think I will.

  • stuartblessman

    Two words: Firefly marathon.

  • solshine7

    This movie looks good. My favorite Juliette Binoche film is “Horseman on the Roof”. She and Oliver Martinez were great in that.

  • http://quadrivium.wordpress.com/ taj

    “I may have a voice like a gravel-crusher”

    You know, I’ve heard you speak on the Kindling’s Muse, and you already have a deep baritone. If it’s gotten any deeper, I’d get on the horn woth someone and see if you can score a gig doing voiceover work for movie trailers. ;-)


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