Every now and again, a red balloon floats passively through the steel-blue Parisian skies. A little boy named Simon (Simon Iteanu) spots it one day flirting about the treetops near a Metro stop. Calling out to it, he begs the balloon to come home with him. He even tries to bribe it with "a million pieces of candy." But seeing as though the balloon doesn't follow orders, Simon calls it "stupid," loses interest and marches off.
Writer/director Hsiao-hsien Hou ("Flowers of Shanghai," "Millennium Mambo") calls his new film, "The Flight of the Red Balloon," an "ode" to "Le Ballon Rouge," the 1956 short film by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse. The original was a nearly silent, thoroughly French celebration of childhood. In contrast, Hou's version strings together a conversational series of scenes, something that might be dubbed domestic drama if only it had a discernible arc.
In terms of imagery, however, Hou's film is no less lovely than the first: An obscured face, deep in thought, is viewed through a windowpane; she comes alive only when the passing balloon casts its long, dark shadow.
The film begins with Simon meeting his new nanny, Song (Song Fang), a film student from Beijing, on the street outside his school. Simon's frazzled mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), instructs Song to bring Simon to a bakery, and then, handing over the keys to their apartment, tells her to make copies for herself. Does Simon know where to make the keys, asks Song? Yes, of course.
Throughout the film, Simon stands by, quietly observing with saucer eyes, as his mother, a professional puppeteer, encounters all manner of personal disappointment. For one, her boyfriend is away in Montreal; during the course of the film she realizes he's not coming home. Nor is her daughter, Simon's sister, who is away in Brussels. Suzanne has disheveled, bleached-blond hair that stands on end every time she gets frustrated and runs her fingers through it, which is often. Once again, the filmmaker is drawing our attention to the beautiful shapes in everyday life -- even in a bad haircut.
As for Song, she speaks French with a deflated voice and absorbs her surroundings with an absent gaze. At times, a viewer wonders whether she represents the detached eye of a filmmaker. After all, she, too, is making a film based on "Le Ballon Rouge." But after a while, it becomes clear that Hou has no such agenda. He simply seeks to capture Song's qualities of stillness. Her performance feels painfully real.
"Are you hungry?" Are you thirsty?" asks Song. She and Simon are ambling down a city street. Melancholic piano music trickles in, so as to signify the heartbreak of the mundane.