Tiawanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's first European production is an affectionate but dramatically inert homage to Albert Lamorisse's beloved 1958 short The Red Balloon, a touching fantasy in which a lonely Parisian boy befriends a red balloon that appears to have a life -- and feelings -- of its own. In Hou's much longer -- and more complicated -- version, the little boy is Simon (Simon Itaneau), the son of actress Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), who performs all the voices at a small puppet theater. (Their current production is an adaptation of an ancient Chinese legend about a man who tries to turn the sea to steam by boiling it, hoping to rescue his drowned beloved.) Suzanne is raising Simon on her own: Her husband, Pierre, moved to Montreal to finish his novel and is probably not coming back. His friend, Marc (Hippolyte Girardot), has moved into the downstairs room of what used to be Suzanne's mother's house, but Suzanne wants him gone. He hasn't paid rent in months and she needs the room for her teenage daughter Louise (Louise Margolin), who's scheduled to return from Brussels, where she's caring for her ailing grandfather. Suzanne knows getting Marc to leave is going to be yet another messy complication in her hectic life, and to help her deal with her increasingly busy schedule Suzanne hires Song (Fang Song), a quiet film student from China who charmed Suzanne with her student film, "Origins." Song's primary duties involve picking Simon up from school, buying him a pastry at the local boulangerie and getting him home, but Song soon involves him in her latest project -- a video about balloons inspired by Lamorisse's short film, which she adores. But it seems that Simon really is being shadowed by a perfectly round, cherry red balloon that follows him home each day, watching over him, bumping against his window and floating away before anyone else notices. The best of Hou's films are quiet accumulations of hints and nuances that reward the patient viewer with an emotionally rich conclusion. Not so here. Working without a proper script, just a scenario for characters to improvise their dialogue around, Hou asks his actors, including a young child, to do what few filmmakers aside from Hou can. Not surprisingly, we're left with characters that feel only half sketched and fail to resonate on their own -- but onto which much can be read by Hou's most ardent fans -- in a poetic looking film that's ultimately as inflated and empty as the balloon itself.