The class of people who frequently watch foreign-language films must not be separated from those who frequently travel to faraway places to experience other worlds. The foreign-film lover is a species of this larger type, the tourist, with the sole exception that he/she doesn't travel far to see strange things, wonderful places, bizarre habits. She rides a bicycle or he catches a bus to the nearest theater. She takes a seat. He looks up. The film starts. And we are in the middle of Buenos Aires in spring. We watch the Argentineans eat, fight, love, commit crimes, and express their feelings. What connects the foreign-film lover to the foreign-country lover is this watching. He wants to see other people speaking other languages, wants to see their peculiar gestures and mode of being. The first pleasure, the pleasure from which all others branch, is watching what is not familiar.
Without this pleasure, the films of the great Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien are inaccessible to us. For the Taiwanese moviegoer, a film like City of Sadness is charged by the positives and negatives of a historical sequence that only those with enough experience can appreciate. City of Sadness was a success in that part of the world because it was politically relevant to that part of the world. For those of us with little or no experience of the China/Taiwan context/conflict, the film's politics represented a closed and locked door. We needed another entry point. That opening was the simple enjoyment one receives from seeing strangers going through their different way of life. Seeing the people in another language, city, home, body—this is what the lover of foreign-language films first sees and enjoys in the work of Hou.
With Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou constructs a new cinematic situation/pleasure: a stranger making a movie for strangers about strangers. Let's think about this for a moment. A director whose movies we watch to see strangers (Taiwanese) in strange lands (Taiwan) do strange things (eat, work, love) has made a movie from the viewpoint of a stranger watching strange people (the French) do strange things (eat, work, love) in a strange place (Paris). And though it's by no means exceptional for a director from one culture to make a film in a different culture—Woo and Hitchcock's Hollywood films, Jules Dassin's Rififi, Emir Kusturica's Arizona Dream, and, most recently, Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights. These films, however, are distinct from Hou's Flight in this way: They are not about watching strangers. There is no tourism in them. The whole subject of Flight is the gaze of the lover of foreign-language films.
The film's origin is The Red Balloon, a short and famous 1956 film about a boy, a balloon, and the rooftops of Paris. Hou watched the film as we in the U.S. watched it—as an outsider, as someone in a theater seeing the inside of another society that's unlike his own. In Flight, the outsider leaves the space of the theater and, in the manner of The Purple Rose of Cairo, enters the space of the screen. This movie, like The Red Balloon, begins with a boy, Simon (Simon Iteanu), and a balloon. The two are in Paris. The balloon is following the boy. But then something unexpected happens. A young Chinese woman, Song (Song Fang), enters the movie. The woman is a film student; she is a lover of French cinema; she is Simon's new nanny; she is the director, Hou Hsiao-hsien. The director, the outsider, observes the strangers from the inside, and we in the audience are in the odd situation of watching the director (the outsider) watch the French (the insiders) from the inside.
It is not an accident that the center of this film is a cluttered apartment owned by Simon's mother, an artist (Juliette Binoche). The apartment is filled with French things: foods, pictures, books, furniture, boxes. The apartment has two floors. The first floor is occupied by a couple—a screenwriter and his young, beautiful girlfriend. The upper floor is where the boy lives with his crazy and expressive mother. Absent from this apartment is the boy's father. We see the mother struggle with this absence, struggle with the couple on the first floor, struggle to give the boy the care he needs. This is how the French live and act. And the pleasure of watching this living and acting is not only ours but also the director's.
If a tourist stays in a strange country for too long, he eventually begins to appreciate the place's political and historical depth. He begins to see the problems, the social issues, the real substance of this and that custom. He begins to take sides and develop opinions. Flight never goes this far. It simply enters the French world, looks around for several moments, and then leaves like a ghost, a balloon, a tourist.