Beyond a means to keep a French 101 class occupied for 34 minutes, most remember Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short "The Red Balloon" as the magical, nearly dialogue-free tale of a sentient balloon that follows a little boy around the streets of Paris. But it's also extremely bittersweet, since the boy lacks allies among non-helium-filled life-forms, and even his newfound friend is eventually destroyed by a group of bullies. His essential loneliness makes the feature-length homage The Flight Of The Red Balloon a good fit for Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, a poet of alienation whose recent work has set characters adrift in major cities like Taipei (Millennium Mambo) and Tokyo (Café Lumière). Like the latter film—made to honor the 50th anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story—Flight was commissioned by producers overseas, and it feels similarly, impeccably slight, as if Hou were resigned to playing a tourist in his own movie.
Hou gets a surprisingly robust, even brassy, performance out of Juliette Binoche as a tough-as-nails single mother who works as a voice artist at a puppet theater. As Binoche throws herself into her latest production, she leaves her son Simon Iteanu under the care of Chinese nanny Fang Song, who speaks French fluidly, but is nonetheless an outsider in Paris. Followed, from a distance, by a red balloon, the boy and his nanny wander the city streets, which Hou shoots with little dialogue and a special attentiveness to the natural bustle and ambience of traffic. The film's minor drama concerns Binoche's attempts to evict an annoying tenant (Hippolyte Girardot) from her apartment building.
Nothing much happens in The Flight Of The Red Balloon, and that's all by design: Hou means to evoke a city and a few of the lonely characters within it, and he does so with consummate grace, affection, and a subtle touch of magic. The film disappoints more in context with his career than as a standalone piece; once a director who brought history to scrupulous life in the modern classics The Puppetmaster and Flowers Of Shanghai, Hou has lately contented himself with pretty little baubles that, Three Times excepted, are lacking in ambition. There's no doubt he pays loving respect to beloved staples like Tokyo Story and "The Red Balloon," but he's better off returning to movies that might inspire others to pay homage to him.