Hou Hsiao-hsien should be no stranger to any cinephile. The 60-year-old pioneer of the Taiwanese New Wave has been a fixture at the world's top film festivals and counts some of the film world's most influential critics among his admirers. Still, Mr. Hou remains an enigma to the American audience. Of the 18 features he's made since 1980, only four received theatrical releases domestically, while another four went straight to DVD. His latest, the Juliette Binoche headliner "Flight of the Red Balloon," has the potential to be that much-needed breakout hit for the director here in America. Nevertheless, Mr. Hou canceled a recent promotional visit to New York and agreed to only a very few phone interviews. "Flight of the Red Balloon," which was commissioned by the Musée d'Orsay and opens next Friday in New York, marks Mr. Hou's first foray into French filmmaking. Inspired by Albert Lamorisse's "The Red Balloon," the Chinese director's film revolves around the hurried lives of a career-oriented single mother (Ms. Binoche), her son (Simon Iteanu), and his nanny (Song Fang). The auteur admitted that he was unfamiliar with Paris, having visited it only a few times. Upon accepting the project, he stopped over frequently en route to film festivals and spent two months reading about la ville lumière.
"Movies should reflect facets of life," Mr. Hou said in his native Mandarin. "If you don't fully comprehend a way of life, you can't tell whether something will ring true. Whenever I am planning a script, I like to survey a location and its surroundings to determine where key scenes will take place, within which neighborhood, and what the area's infrastructure is like. I'll explore places such as the school and the public market within that district."
During his research, Mr. Hou read several biographies and novels on Parisian life. It's how he first stumbled upon Mr. Lamorisse's iconic short film of 1956.
"I found it fascinating, because the relationship between a child and a balloon has changed drastically in half a century," he said. "A child can have all kinds of toys nowadays, so a balloon is nothing special. But the original 'Red Balloon' ended with a group of children fighting over the balloon and ultimately causing it to deflate, which I thought was quite cruel. So the balloon in my film represents a ghost of the past returning to this world. Although it may momentarily elicit a child's curiosity, the balloon basically understands that its relationship with the child has shifted. It is watching over a child, but there's also an air of sadness because it can no longer win the child's affection."
Mr. Hou injected some Chinese flavor into this otherwise French production. In addition to the presence of Ms. Song, a Chinese student studying film in France, Ms. Binoche's character, Suzanne, works as a narrator for a Chinese puppet troupe. For the end-credit song, musician Camille Dalmais composed French lyrics to a Taiwanese oldie, "The Forgotten Time," made popular two decades ago by the singer-actress Tsai Chin (ex-wife of the late filmmaker Edward Yang).
"There were some Chinese elements in the film, but the French performers were basically making everything their own," Mr. Hou said. "I incorporated these elements mostly because of my own familiarity with them. My perspective on Paris is a foreigner's perspective. But it's the very same one that I employed to scrutinize Taiwan or Asia in my previous films. It took years to formulate this perspective, and it informs my worldview."
But Mr. Hou freely admitted that it is not his perspective alone that informs his new film. Indeed, such a personal process would have yielded inadequate results. "France being a foreign country to me, the cultural discrepancy is unfathomable," he said. "Unless you've lived there, you can't fully grasp it. I made my observations and wrote them into a screenplay, but ultimately I bounced everything back to the actors and allowed them to express it on their own terms. Basic outlines substituted for detailed dialogue in hopes that the actors could speak naturally — almost reflexively — to bring authenticity to their performances. It's not like I'd be able to tell if they were reciting their lines word for word anyway. I filmed 'Café Lumière' in Japan using the same method. Without that precedent, I probably would not have considered filming in France."
In the end, it was the melding of the director's experience in both filmmaking and in life with that of his cast and crew that brought "Flight of the Red Balloon" fully to life. Chinese puppetry, for example, has long been a recurring theme for Mr. Hou, who frequently collaborated with the late, legendary Taiwanese puppeteer Li Tian-lu. And Ms. Binoche's father, Jean-Marie, is a director and sculptor working in puppet theater. So making the character of Suzanne a puppeteer by trade was an organic choice that united the disparate cultural forces at work on the film.
"I grew up watching traditional puppet shows," Mr. Hou said. "I used to live right by a Buddhist temple in Fongshan City of Kaohsiung County, which would play host to an annual competition that encompassed Taiwanese opera, puppetry, and shadow play. I used to sit through marathons of performances. Later on, I decided to make 'The Puppetmaster' — Li Tian-lu's life story — party because of my own expertise on the subject. Mr. Li actually spent some time in France and taught there when he was in his 60s. As it turned out, Ms. Binoche's father also worked in the puppet theater. It was only fitting to incorporate that into this film."
Mr. Hou said that filming in France was a breeze, but he quickly dismissed the notion of making another non-Chinese-language film. In fact, he has been doing extensive research on the Tang dynasty (618 to 907) in preparation for a wuxia pian (a film of martial chivalry rooted in mythical China) that will star Shu Qi.
"I've made my share of art films, so I think it's time to switch gears," Mr. Hou said. "I'd like to devote the next 10 years to making wuxia films. Rest assured, they won't be your ordinary kung-fu movies that other filmmakers have been making. The Tang dynasty produced countless novels that are quite fascinating. The first one I've chosen is about a female assassin called 'Nieyin niang.' It won't be easy to film. The wuxia genre generally allows a lot of artistic license, to the point that it bears no resemblance to actual history. But I can't help but obsess over historical accuracy. I've read a lot about the Tang dynasty. I think that once you have a thorough understanding of that period, there's a wealth of material you can mine for the next decade."
The director explained that an interest in history might just renew his nation's interest in the future of cinema. By making wuxia pian, he said, he might revive the near-extinct Taiwanese film industry.
"In order to open up the world market, you inevitably have to erase all the differences between cultures," he said. "You have to resort to genres and uncomplicated plots. Hollywood is quite expert at this, often to the detriment of other film industries. But from my perspective, each place should have its own unique culture or else it has nothing to contribute to the world. Even though it's more of a tall order to preserve individual cultures in this Internet age, I am hopeful that the next generation will find a way."