The story is about the seven year old Razieh and her elder brother Ali. On the eve of the Iranian new year, Razieh and her mother are returning from shopping as the family is gearing up for festivities. The opening scene at the market place where the mother moves into the frame nonchalantly searching for the missing Razieh also introduces almost all major characters in the film - the arguing customer of the tailor, the afghan balloon seller and the Iranian soldier, being dropped.
Though Panahi does not introduce them to the viewer nor appearing in sequence of their later reappearance or importance, this is a curious technique - which I have heard of being used in films which revolve around catastrophic themes and larger-than life portrayals.
Razieh pushes her mother to give her the last 500 toman note for her to buy the 'chubby, white, four-finned and the dancing gold fish' for new year - maneuvering through her brother. She loses the money to two snake-charmers and gets it back from them only to lose it again, this time falling into a dry sewer in front of a closed shop. She convinces the next door shopowner to help her, gets her brother to help her and others as well.
They manage to retrieve it by using the Afghan balloon seller's stick, by placing a chewing gum at the tip.
The sub plots
Razieh is symbolised as how a modern woman should be: clear, forceful, resourceful and goal-oriented.
Clear - as she know what she wants and why she wants it. The way she explains how the fish looks, why it needs to be bought and how it differs to the 'skinny' ones she has shows the clarity of thinking.
Forceful - Razieh never lets her ambition down. Right through the movie people keep telling her many negative ideas - no need to buy the fish, no money, no time... she never once listens and single-mindedly engage with all of them, only to convince them that the fish needs to be bought, money needs to be given to her or the note needs to be retrieved from the gutter - somehow. Not once she ditches her ambition and nor she leaves guard of the money.
At one instance, she has the thoughtfulness to run to the fish seller and make him reserve the fish, negotiates with him and explains she will get back before shop-closing time and will buy the fish.
Resourceful - right from making her brother go after the next shop's owner to trace the owner of the closed shop to enlisting the balloon seller to help them retrieve the bank note, Razieh keeps looking for resources to help her win the situation. She, failing to convince her mom to give money, barters her balloon with her brother to make him get the money from mother. There are ample scenes right through the film where Panahi establishes this trait.
Goal-oriented - she never wavers from her goal, even when Ali is concerned about getting late to go back, they not able to trace the shop owner, the stranger (Iranian soldier) sitting next to her, knowing about the money inside the gutter, Razieh never once talks about mother, festivities, getting late and so on.
I believe Jafar Panahi symbolises her character with what he envisages for Iranian or more generally women. The beauty of a simple script and very adept dialogues adds a lot of texture to this neat work.
There are many minor symbolisms right through the movie but the three intriguing ones are:
Why is Razieh's father not shown right through the film,in spite of being a nagging voice?
Why is the film ending on the Afghan balloon seller, rather than on Razieh and Ali?
What is the connection of the title 'The White Balloon' - the balloon seller has one remaining white balloon; Razieh wears a white dress; she wishes to buy a white gold fish.
A very satisfying film.