Watching the title character bob across Parisian rooftops in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, you realize that’s the rhythm Hou’s been moving to all along — that the maker of Dust in the Wind floats on air currents through his personal histories of Taiwan in the twentieth century (and beyond). For the second time in his last three features, Hou decamps to a foreign metropolis and finds a quiet city, all glass-pane reflections of afternoon sunlight. There’s more surface tension here than in Tokyo story Café Lumière, 2003’s sublimated Ozu tribute — mostly stirred up by Juliette Binoche, as Suzanne, a frazzled single mom with a windblown bleach job, inappropriate wardrobe and volatile vocal register (she’s an actress, when not running late, overtipping, or shouting down the husband on the other end of the cell phone or the tenant downstairs). But, this being a Hou film, content is primarily subterranean — say, the recessed rapport between Simon (Simon Itanu), Suzanne’s seven-year-old son, and Song (Song Fang), his Beijing-born nanny — with elusive echoes, like the red balloon which hovers sometimes outside Simon’s window, like a guardian angel, and sometimes on film student Song’s laptop as she edits a riff on Albert Lamorisse’s kiddie classic. (While Song remakes a French film, Suzanne performs adaptations of Chinese puppet theatre.)
As an emotional experience, Flight is beyond therapeutic: Hou’s drifting long takes accommodate octaves of melancholic grace notes, as in a late single-shot scene balancing the breaking and receding of multiple domestic crises, while a blind piano tuner works just offscreen. A sense of harmony is the not-so-secret to Hou’s resonant ambience, and, maybe, how he makes someplace like home out of transcontinental flux.
A big deal no one is making: the first Western-language films by the two most inimitable, imitated Asian filmmakers of our time are opening in New York on the same day. Like Hou a non-mainland Chinese whose work might be a metronome for structuring post-modern confusion, Wong Kar-wai hits the road with My Blueberry Nights, a film as American as apple pie, and as out-of-time iconographic as that phrase implies.
Norah Jones, scrunchy-faced and a more adult-contemporary presence than the Cantopop stars of Wong’s Hong Kong films, encounters lost souls at late-night diners and bars in New York, Memphis and Nevada. Blueberry Nights retroactively posits Hopper’s “Nighthawks” as a source text for Wong’s transitory, nocturnal, urban oeuvre — through-the-whiskey-glass tales of cheap eats and displaced persons, with Top 40 hits and music video technique seeping in like hotel TV dreams. (And if Hopper painted a Greenwich Village snack counter now, he’d include a flatscreen playing MTV India.) Often called a time traveler, Wong synthesizes personal memory and pop subconscious.
His scenarios, though, teeter between obscure metaphors and drippy pronouncements. Here, Jones has learning experiences with misty Jude Law, blowsy Rachel Weisz and saddest-sack-in-the-universe David Strathairn, and tangy quarterlife cougar Natalie Portman; throughout, Jones voice-overs easy-listening platitudes straight off a “The Way I See It” Starbucks cup. Maybe Wong’s a better writer of subtitles than dialogue; maybe the rigorous logistics of a swift American production short-circuit his preferred method: make cast and crew tango till they’re sore, and alchemize the results in post-production. The film’s been reedited since last year’s tepid Cannes premiere, but from inorganic raw material. Next to Hou’s timeless memo for the new millennium, Blueberry Nights is a stopped clock.
Both films opening April 4