I have only the faintest recollection of Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon - just my own sense-memory sniff of children sweating through sweaters in an overheated room watching the near-silent 1956 classic short. Two decades from now, I suspect I'll have retained just as little from Flight of the Red Balloon, the homage by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien; a mere two hours later, the red balloon and its flight - which, honestly, promises more forward movement than Hou's film ever delivers - has mostly leaked from my memory.
What remains are gorgeous fragments, as when a mop-topped boy presses his face to a car window, the light and shadow playing off of him. He is Simon (Simon Iteanu), a taciturn Parisian boy who meets his own red balloon in the film's opening frames. Unlike Lamorisse's child lead, Simon can't coax the balloon into companionship.
The balloon will resurface throughout, but far more interesting, and substantial, is the slow reveal of Simon's domestic situation. His mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), runs an experimental puppet theater. There is also Simon's new nanny, a budding Chinese filmmaker named Song (Fang Song) who is working on her own homage to The Red Balloon.
Honestly, I could take or leave the business with the balloon, which never gels thematically. But what I wouldn't trade is a long take set in Simon and Suzanne's cramped apartment, in which a blind piano tuner sets to work as a PlayStation blares, the downstairs neighbor bellows, a phone call disappoints, and Binoche's bottle blond nears cracking up, then beautifully pulls herself back from the ledge. It's about as messy and vibrant as this sedate, ever-lovely-looking film ever gets.