Best of the Decade Derby: of cafes, balloons and camerawork

This post is dedicated to Chris Fujiwara, with whom I enjoyed a hotpot dinner and a morning double feature of Nikkatsu '60s New Wave porn at the CinemaVera arthouse in Shibuya during my recent stay in Tokyo. During our time together Chris expressed disdain over the preponderance of film writing in magazines and blogs these days that convey a "look how cool I am to be writing about this movie that I got to see" snobbishness to it. His complaint is that the tone of these pieces convey exclusivity and snobbish possessiveness over the works being discussed, which in the end does these films a great disservice, as these films need and deserve to be made understood to a wider audience. Chris' concerns are those I've had as I've spent many years trying to vindicate the virtues of Hou Hsiao Hsien to peers who would often reply with a dismissive "Who Hsiao Hsien?"  Now that Hou has unequivocably earned his day in the sun with American film critics, with Flight of the Red Balloon coming out at the top of the IndieWire critics poll (which seems to be missing from the new version of the IndieWire site), I find myself in a peculiar position of making a potentially snobbish argument questioning why Flight of the Red Balloon is so regarded while his earlier oeuvre remains fairly underappreciated. Perhaps I should just be grateful that the praise lavished on Hou's latest film may carry over into proper DVD releases of his earlier work, such as his hands-down greatest film City of Sadness, which to date is not available as an English-subtitled DVD.

It remains to be seen whether Flight's prominent poll position will translate to a slot on many critics end-of-decade top ten lists.  Thanks to its strong showing, it's the highest ranking 2008 release on the freshly updated (and, interestingly, Dark Knight-free) aggregate list of the decade's best films on They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, debuting at #30. In comparison, Cafe Lumiere is at #152, and Three Times at #199. I've been of the opinion that Cafe Lumiere is Hou's best film of the decade, the only one that comes close to being a masterpiece (in contrast, there are three Hou films from the 1990s that I consider masterpieces: The Puppetmaster, Goodbye South, Goodbye and Flowers of Shanghai), and I've stated before that Flight of the Red Balloon, while remarkable in many ways, strikes me as a European reconfiguring of much that can already be found in Cafe Lumiere - which makes me regard Flight's commercial and critical success with some suspicion, especially when compared to the relative lack thereof wth Cafe Lumiere.

Maybe it's snarky of me to come up with commercial reasons for Hou's long-deferred success with Flight of the Red Balloon, but I'll just get them off my chest:

- The breakthrough success of Hou's Three Times (which, as accomplished as it was in many respects, could be seen as a high-concept, audience-friendly intro to his worldview recycling much of his previous films) set the stage for his subsequent release to continue his commercial success in the US. - The baguette factor:  Juliette Binoche + Paris. As J. Hoberman once said, if Hou were French he'd be selling out the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Turns out that J.Ho may have called this one right. - Lastly, for Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou adopts an arthouse-friendly color palette of warm reds and oranges, and employs some masterful long panning takes which situate his style squarely within the conventions of contemporary arthouse cinema more than any of his previous films.  Now, I don't suspect that Hou was as calculating as "let's shoot it this way so I can cash in on arthouse audience preferences." The panning takes of Flight of the Red Balloon are indeed masterful (more on that in a moment) and aesthetically they make sense, as they mimic the whimsical swinging trajectories of the balloon (and once I realized this, the balloon seemed much more than just a gimmicky link to French cinema history).

Having said all this, I rewatched Flight of the Red Balloon during my trip, and on a purely cinematic basis, I was floored. Hou's economy of filmmaking, the way he choreographs camerawork and staging to accomplish several things visually and dramatically in one take is astounding. The most brilliantly indisputable evidence of this comes at a dramatic highpoint in the film, when Juliette Binoche's character suffers something close to a nervous breakdown trying to find the legal paperwork that would allow her to finally separate materially from her ex-husband and allow her literally to get a new lease on life. Look at how this five minute scene plays out and guess how many shots are involved:

The answer: one. Hou and cinematographer Mark Li Ping Bing achieve in one camera setup what would require at least five unique setups by a conventional production. And the fact that it is just one camera setup gives the audience a real-time sense of how a scene unfolds, how figures move through it and around each other, how the space itself affects the mood of the scene. Respect.

The only thing I could possibly say against this (and it's not really against Flight of the Red Balloon, more against those who think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread) is that Hou's been doing this for at least a decade. Check out the final scene of Goodbye South Goodbye, in which two parties negotiate the release of the lead characters. Granted here he's working more with horizontal space than with the cool horizontal-vertical axis in the scene from Flight shown above, but it illustrates all the better how a space seems to continually unfold new manifestations, new wonders.

Notice how the two shots at the end of this one-take scene could be combined to form a master panorama view of the whole table - but dramatically the pan makes sense because the two shots depict the two sides of the negotiation taking place.

In Japan I also had hotpot with Shozo Ichiyama, the producer of so many of Hou's great films in the 1990s, including Goodbye South, Goodbye. Ichiyama-san told me that Hou is concentrating of producing his next project, which will be a martial arts film. These long takes may give one an idea of what Hou has in mind.

I also rescind the earlier assessment I made that Flight of the Red Balloon is essentially a European rehash of Cafe Lumiere, in that it takes the incidental, in-the-moment, contemporary life-in-the-making project of Cafe Lumiere's Tokyo and recontextualizes it in Paris (which, again, proved to be a commercially wise idea).  Having seen both in the past week, their differences are more striking than their similarities. Flight is shot voluptuously, with its rich warm hues, captivating panning shots, and busy interior scenes where anywhere between 2-5 characters will buzz around a space like bees.

When I think of Cafe Lumiere, the first word that comes to mind is "flat." The second is "impassive." The two words are closely linked, and I think have everything to do with not only how this movie looks, but what it thinks and feels about the world and about people, esp. its protagonist. In contrast the sequence shown above from Flight, where a single shot suggests many pockets of micro-spaces and dimensions within a scene, the shots of Cafe Lumiere are flat and direct. Part of this may have to do with the locations Hou shoots, such as the bookstore where Hajime (Tadanobu Asano - Japan's actor of the decade?) works:

Looking at these compositions, it's striking how Ozu-esque they are, shot at geometrically square angles - and maybe this has something to do with the resultant "flatness" of Cafe that I've described. But unlike Ozu, Hou doesn't do a lot of shot-reverse shot cutting or decoupage of a scene; he doesn't do much cutting at all, really. By my count, Cafe Lumiere has 49 scenes and 81 shots - that's an average of less than 2 shots per scene!

By my count, the number of shots in Cafe Lumiere and Flight of the Red Balloon is almost exactly the same. Flight has 80, Cafe has 81. But Cafe has 10 more scenes than Flight. I think this means that Cafe moves more from scene to scene than Flight, while Flight moves more within scenes (look at the sequence above for a clear example of what I mean). While Flight is fascinated with the bustle of activity within a given space,  Cafe follows one character on a mysterious journey of self-discovery that involves her friend's bookstore, her parent's house, various locations related to the Taiwanese composer she is researching, and any number of cafes and train stations in between.

Played by Japanese pop singer Yo Hitoto, Yoko is a remarkable character in that she manages to be appealing and engaging despite having her back turned to us for half the movie. Hitoto is dressed plainly compared to Juliette Binoche's tussled blond dyejob and boho threads in Flight. Often times we don't even see her face clearly - the above close-up is pretty much the only one in the film, though it comes at a key moment of emotional candor (well, as candid as this film of intentions veiled by common courtesies ever gets).  One can see why this film would do poorly with audiences: not only does it lack the warm, charismatic presence of Shu Qi or Juliette Binoche, but it doesn't even give much in the way of flattering closeups to bring us closer to its lead. Again, the overall effect is "flat" - she's just there, on screen, living her life, her performance not giving much consideration to the audience watching her.

This intractability, I argue, is the gateway to understanding this movie.  The plot, what there is of one, concerns a girl's search for the historical remnants of a late Taiwanese composer who lived in Japan many decades before. The search may or may not be related to the girl's own recent developments: getting pregnant by a Taiwanese boyfriend now living in Thailand, but deciding to break up with him and stay in Tokyo to have the baby. It's quite a melodramatic situation when one thinks about it, though you wouldn't guess it by the relatively placid way that the girl goes about her business (the only distressful moment she has is when she suffers morning sickness on the subway). But this quiet impassivity forces the viewer to look more carefully for slight clues or cues to the drama - and is the key to what's truly special about this film.

Take this scene, where Yoko tells her stepmother over a late night snack that she's pregnant. Compare the stepmother's face and body language before the announcement:

with after:

These are the two most extreme stills, mind you - I tried to go for extremes because you have to watch the frames in motion to get a sense of the full scope of her body language, a series of slight movements backwards (once she hears the announcement) and then forwards (when she recovers from the internal shock to ask questions).  It's worth noting that the changing registers of people's facial expressions was Ozu's bread and butter - except that he would sandwich these two shots above around a reverse shot of Yoko making the announcement. Here we have the integrity of a moment preserved in real time, and we get to witness one second wash into the next, seeing how movements, feelings, registers of light unfold in a constant stream.

My favorite character in the movie is Yoko's father, who never says a single word in the film, and whose rigid, mountainlike presence betrays a well of micro-emotions. Compare this shot of him sitting in his living room, enjoying a beer in front of the TV, his daughter just returned home:

The next afternoon we see him in a reverse shot of the one above - he's sitting on the opposite side of the table, this time facing the pposite direction (the window instead of the TV), his eyes closed and anxious. You'd have to watch the movie to get a sense of how his emotional state has changed overnight - the difference is that this is the morning after his daughter told his stepmom that she's pregnant. We never get a scene of the daughter telling the father - in all likelihood it wasn't communicated directly - but the ever so slight change of the father's body language is enough to tell us what he knows and feels.

Several scenes later, it's the next day and the parents have come to visit Yoko's apartment to discuss the matter of her pregnancy further. Father and daughter eat silently at the table - but you get a quick moment of the father putting a potato on Yoko's plate. I didn't even notice this moment the first time I watched the film. But if you hone in on it, it's an emotionally tidal moment that means the world to both of them, given all that's happened.

The feeling of connection is short-lived however, as the lunch leads to a discussion of the pregnancy, with stepmom now crowding the frame - a subtle way for Hou to suggest tension and discord through deep staging:

It remains to be seen whether Flight of the Red Balloon or Cafe Lumiere are strong enough to make my top ten of the decade.  I'm not even sure which film I think is better - the question may be moot, as I've gone to lengths to show how different they are and unique in their own respects. But even though I've rewatched Cafe more than Flight, I'm still more inclined to revisit Cafe. It's the rarer treasure, its mysteries seem more tightly packed underneath a seemingly banal surface, operating under a cinematic logic that in its own, quiet way, radically defies category or convention, reflecting the modestly willful, quietly independent spirit of its protagonist. It makes Flight look more ingratiating, like an amusement park ride in comparison - though don't get me wrong, it's a hell of a ride. I've come to appreciate that much...

For further reference, here are links to my original reviews to Hou's films of the 2000s. Which one sounds like "best of the decade" material to you?

Millennium Mambo

Cafe Lumiere

Three Times

Flight of the Red Balloon