Somewhere in the middle of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, the film’s protagonist, Suzanne, is sharing a quiet train carriage with her son’s Taiwanese nanny, Song, and the puppet master Ah Zhong, who has just given a lecture on Chinese puppetry techniques. Suzanne, who has been gazing out of the window absently, suddenly pulls a postcard from her scrapbook. It’s a gift, she tells Song to translate to Ah Zhong, an image of something she saw at the British Museum in London when she was working there as a nanny. It is deeply personal to her, she explains, but also something she feels is quintessentially Chinese—“la Chine profonde”—and so she feels Master Ah Zhong should have it.
This scene is a typically offhanded moment for Hou—his films nearly always pile minute, equivocal sketches into unexpectedly rich compositions of everyday life. Like his best films, Flight of the Red Balloon has many such scenes—a flashback to a child’s day out with his sister, a non sequitur story about a piano mover’s injury and rehabilitation, a minor disagreement about the use of a kitchen. In any other film, a French woman telling a Chinese character through a Chinese translator what she believes is quintessentially Chinese would stick out like a sore thumb, likely as an outright indictment of the French woman’s blinkered provinciality. But as usual, Hou is after something far subtler, a simple marker of the intersection of East and West that calls attention to the dovetailing processes of translation and adaptation in which the characters are involved. Read Leo Goldsmith on Flight of the Red Balloon.