Hovering just out of sight throughout "Flight of the Red Balloon," like a memory of childhood on a busy day, is Albert Lamorisse's 1956 Oscar-winning short film "The Red Balloon." That magical classic is referenced by one of the new film's characters early on, and at times we glimpse the balloon itself, bumping against a window casement or ghosting along a Metro platform. It seems to be telling us something.
But what? The hushed brilliance of Hou Hsiao-hsien's movie is that the answer's right there in front of us, even as we and the onscreen characters can't hear it through the white noise of daily life. The subject is the privileged state of childhood itself - how we're all lucky to have had it and how it so easily floats away from our grasp.
This being a Hou film, the point is made indirectly. There's no plot, per se, and if you come to the theater expecting one, you'll be shredding the armrests 30 minutes in. Rather, "Flight" looks at the world the way a kid would, taking it all in and sifting for clues.
The specific kid here is Simon (Simon Iteanu), a 7-year-old Parisian boy with an unruly mop of hair. He lives with his mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), in a cluttered carriage house on a cobbled side street. When the film opens, he's meeting his new nanny, a Chinese film student named Song (Fang Song).
Song casually videotapes moments of the boy's day and tries shaping them into something on her laptop; she's the director's stand-in, hoping that if she looks long enough, art will happen. (It does.) Through her, we see that Simon's mother is something of a failed grown-up herself.
A free-spirited artist who performs in a puppet theater, Suzanne can barely hold her life together. Her husband is in Canada writing a novel and, while she doesn't want to admit it, he's not coming back. The tenants downstairs are causing a fuss; the family lawyer must be called in. Binoche, her hair cropped and blond, guides the character from exhaustion to snappishness to maternal love. You've had days like this, but Suzanne is having a life like this, and it's taking its toll.
"Flight of the Red Balloon" unfolds in long, graceful takes; even those who like their films slow may find their minds wandering to the grocery list occasionally. Hou keeps seducing you back, though. Paris becomes a character in its own right, cruel and forgiving in the style of Lamorisse's movie. The camerawork by Lee Pin-bing and the sound recording by Chu Shih-yi capture the ceaseless flow of life in a metropolis and in a boy's living room, as an argument erupts on the landing and the blind piano-tuner plunks out notes.
Toward the end of "Flight," Simon's class takes a field trip to the Musee D'Orsay. The students are brought before Felix Vallotton's 1899 painting "The Balloon," in which a child races through a sunlit park after a receding red balloon while two distant adult figures stand in the shade. "They could be parents," says one boy, "or they could be ghosts."
The film moves through sun and shadow, too. Art, hints Hou, is how we try to recapture childhood's wonder, and it's a thin substitute at best. The strings get tangled, or we haven't learned the proper digital effects. We focus too hard on the canvas. Look up, this movie gently chides - look up in the sky.