An homage to Albert Lamorisse's 1956 film Le Ballon rouge, Hsiao-hsien Hou's Le Voyage du ballon rouge focuses on the lives of Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) and her son Simon (Simon Iteanu). Into their lives comes Song (Fang Song), hired to act as Simon's nanny. Song, a film student, is a fan of Le Ballon rouge and shoots her own little version using Simon, but Simon also sees a red balloon while on his own, on the subway, in a museum, and so on around Paris. This red balloon of the title floats in and out of the film and is less a character in its own right and is rather more of a metaphor for the imagination of a child.
Like one of Hou's earlier films, Café Lumière, Le Voyage du ballon rouge concentrates more on peering into a slice of the lives of the characters, without necessarily having any defined narrative with any specific conclusion. There is an undercurrent of conflict, like Yoko's pregnancy in the former film and Suzanne's dispute with her tenant in the latter, but neither is there to drive their respective films forward; they are more just events that help to define the current state of the characters. The entire film is improvised, which gives some weight to the performances, especially those of Binoche and Iteanu.
Juliette Binoche did a Q&A after the film:
- Each scene was a 10-minute shot done in only a single take, with no rehearsal beforehand.
- Binoche commented on most of western cinema is done in such a way that everything is done for the viewer, without space for the viewer to dream a little or think of their own life.
- When asked if the improvisational nature was frustrating, Binoche countered that it was 'just wonderful'. She enjoyed the freedom and being able to just trust the moment.
- For the puppet show that Binoche is part of in the movie, Hou told her and others in the cast 2 weeks before shooting started that they had to put a show together themselves. So they wrote the story for the puppet show and made the puppets themselves; you see the show proceeding in stages in the film, because the actors were actually working on the puppet show as filming progressed.
- Binoche mentioned that when she has a director that puts so much trust in her to do what she feels like, it brings out other layers she never thought of before. This changed her in the four movies she has done since this one, as she trusts her own being rather than seeking approval from others.
- The actors only had a written synopsis before shooting, consisting of about 25 scenes, each described by only a few lines. The scene in which Suzanne has her piano moved was described simply as 'the piano is going up the stairs'. The piano movers in that scene were actual movers, not actors.
- Binoche told a funny anecdote about that shot; at the end of that scene, she pays them with money from the production and then she tips the movers because that's what she would do in real life, but she couldn't get the money back from them after shooting was done.
- The movie was shot on very little money; Suzanne's apartment in the film actually belongs to the producer and is filled with many of Binoche's own personal belongings.
- Simon Iteanu is not a professional actor; he is the son of Binoche's French publicist from certain films, and she was the one who got Binoche to encounter Hou in the first place.
- Binoche said that when a child is told what to do on a set, they become self-conscious about having to do this and that, versus being free and then requiring longer shots to capture their natural freedom and being.
- She has seen Hou's other films, which is why she wanted to work with him. She loved his special, personal visions that are so unlike those of other directors.
- It didn't seem to take a lot of time to set up to shoot; Hou used his own film crew that he has worked with for years. Each actor has their own microphone, avoiding the need for a boom mike, which would constrain the camera work.