A "take-off" from Albert Lamorisse's classic short film "The Red Balloon," Hou Hsiou-Hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon is all suggestion and no imposition, a subtle meditation on how we position ourselves in space, and to what end. The balloon is here, in brief passages, tracing the drifty, planless flight of adolescence. But the film is more about the sad disconnect of a frazzled mother (Juliette Binoche) from her son (Simon Iteanu) and, by extension, from her own life, lived more in memory and fantasy than in the present and reality.
Binoche's Suzanne is the Parisian auteur and voice performer behind children's puppet shows. Her commitment and focus from the stool of her theatre immediately endears her to us, but absent the world of her own creation—framed inside a comfortingly defined proscenium arch—Suzanne begins to seem like a dithering, middle-aged version of that mysterious helium balloon: navigating more sky than is good for her.
To the extent that The Flight of the Red Balloon has a plot, it traces Suzanne's hiring of a nanny (Fang Song) to care for her son Simon. Suzanne's neither an uncaring cold fish of a mother nor an appropriately attentive one: aside from the pull of her vocation, she's dealing with the unrelenting push of adult minutiae, including selfish upstairs tenants she's at pains to evict. In one telling scene, Suzanne arrives home to Simon, the nanny, and a forgotten guest much later than planned, having marred the perfect evening in her head by spending it running around doing the errands she thinks she has to do to make everyone happy.
While life happens to mom, Simon does what kids do—he walks, he chats, he takes his piano lessons, he plays video games and pinball and entertains the adults who hover nearby. At school, he blends into the crowd, but by way of the occasionally present red balloon that catches the boy's eye, Hou suggests that the growing boy is on to something. He's starting to notice his surroundings and interpret them instead of just taking them at face value. The notion is made more explicit (though not heavy-handed) by a scene in which Simon's teacher talks her students through an analysis of Felix Vallotton's 1899 painting The Balloon, with distant figures that may be the parents of the child in the foreground. (The organization of objects in space gets a different workout in a slice-of-life scene involving piano "movers.")
Cinema is also a vehicle of memory in the film, which overtly alludes to Lamorisse's film by way of the nanny, who happens to be a film student from China. Somehow, even these references come across as more intriguing than heavy-handed or annoying, even when Song asks Simon if he's seen "The Red Balloon." She asks, we learn, as she's planning her own homage to Lamorisse, hopefully to star Simon. She's also made a film called "Origins"—to hear her tell it, a dark toned piece on childhood that work obsessive Suzanne finds pleasingly nostalgic. Soon, Suzanne is asking Song to transfer old 8mm home movies to video, a once-removed opportunity for Suzanne to pause for perspective in her harried existence.
Critical darling Hou (Café Lumière) doesn't exactly make movies for the masses—he constructs his films out of naturalistic longueurs that send some viewers for the exits—but Binoche's brilliant performance (magically conjured mostly from unscripted character improv) makes Flight of the Red Balloon the director's most accessible and emotionally satisfying work to date.