The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once described Hou Hsiao-Hsien as one of the two most important film makers in the world at the turn of this century (Abbas Kiarostami being the second). His previous film, 2005's 'Three Times referred back to three of the films Hou directed in the 1990s (Goodbye, Goodbye South, The Flowers of Shanghai and Millennium Mambo), and distilled all the themes he's examined throughout his career. With this mind, one might reasonably argue that Hou had revisited past glories and needed to pursue new projects (not that Three Times wasn't anything other than great itself).
'Flight of the Red Balloon' is the first film that Hou has made in France, and is both inspired by and a homage to the classic 1956 short 'The Red Balloon' by Albert Lamorisse. Indeed the film begins with a red balloon mysteriously following a young boy, Simon (Simon Iteanu), as he rides the Metro. His mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) has just hired a new child minder named Song (Fang Song), and it is the relationship between Simon and Song that features more so than his relationship with Suzanne. Simon's father is absent and working on a book in Montreal, whilst Suzanne has enough problems of her own besides the lack of a husband; tenants who don't pay the rent, she's always rushed off her feet, and a job as a puppeteer that keeps her away from home (recalling Hou's own 1993 film), all of which affects her own emotional balance. Where is the support she needs?
Song potentially acts as Hou's alter ego in this sense; a foreigner from the Chinese diaspora observing Paris with the eye of an outsider. A student film maker, she is making a film that features red balloons, and she makes reference to the Lamorisse film in the early proceedings. What do we interpret about the motif of the red balloon; what does it represent? Song's caling influence upon the torn family? Is it anything more than in the imagination of those who see it? Hou avoids giving simple explanations and allows the viewer to interpret the imagery of the balloon.
One wonders whether Hou's ambitions are now aimed towards European film making, though IMDB reports that his next film is a Taiwanese thriller about an 8th century assassin reuniting the actors from 'Three Times' (Chen Chang and Qi Shu). As he seems to have reached a natural conclusion with his domestic film making with 'Three Times', it will be interesting to see how his career develops.