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Two and a half years after Hou Hsiao-Hsiens Millenium Mambo
played at Cannes, it finally finds distribution in the United States. From the mid-1980s
on, Hou has been one of the most touted filmmakers on the international scene for works
such as The Time To Live and the Time To Die, City of Sadness, and The
Puppetmaster. Yet outside of the cineaste community, he was completely unknown
stateside. His first film to get a U.S. commercial run was Flowers
of Shanghai in 1999. Ironically by this point in time, Hous output was in
qualitative decline. Perhaps letting his acclaim go to his head, he fashioned his later
movies as heady museum pieces beautiful to look at but distant and emotionless
and as such, they were inert as insects caught in amber. Millenium Mambo is
less stuffy than Hous recent output and is definitely a step in the right direction
From Flowers of Shanghai, a period piece examining life in a nineteenth century brothel, Hou turns his attention to contemporary Taipei youth culture. The movie opens with Vicky (Shu Qi, So Close) marching at night down a long outdoor pathway, her hair waving against her multi-hued outfit. A voice-over from ten years in the future looks back and describes Vickis life in the year 2001. She lives with her paranoid and impulsive boyfriend, Tuan Chen-Hao (also the actors real name), nicknamed Hao-Hao, but Vicky plans to break up with him as soon as the NT$500,000 (roughly $15,000 U.S.) that she has stashed away is used up.
Hao-Hao is the type of guy who, fearing Vicky might leave him for bigger and better things, sabotaged her chance to finish high school when he deliberately failed to wake her before final exams. While Vicky works as a hostess in a trendy bar, Hao-Hao is a total slacker borrowing money from friends or pawning his dads Rolex, which he stole. He frequently roughs her up, then begs for forgiveness when she threatens to leave him.
Occasionally Vicky visits Japan with her friends, the Takeuchi brothers, who help their elderly mom during the Yubari Film Festival. One day Vicky meets Jack (Jack Kao, Time and Tide) in a bar. Jack is a gangster with his own posse, though for a gangster, hes enormously level-headed and compassionate. They strike up something of an affair though Jack treats Vicky more like a daughter; she confides in him her insecurities about her future.
Millenium Mambo is not really a story about Vicky, but about moments in her life Hao-Hao trying to make love to her when shes not remotely interested, Vicky and Ko Takeuchi playing in the snow, Hao-Haos casual callousness in refusing Vicky a hit off his bong, Jack cooking her a hot meal in the cold of winter, Vicky erupting into a flailing fury of indignation while Hao-Hao tries to embrace her, he being too inarticulate to communicate in any other way. As such, the movie has no momentum propelling it forward. Hou actually employs the Barry Lyndon device of undermining expectations by supplying a voice-over that tells complete vignettes about Vicky before they are actually shown on screen. As in Kubricks film, this device provides a tone of historical detachment, though Hous film takes place in the present.
As a movie of moments, Millenium Mambo is a film of great tactility. This is in no small part due to Mark Lee Ping Bings neon-glow cinematography. Hous work has become unimaginable without the contribution of Lee. Under Lees eye, a lamp, window, or candle transforms into onscreen hot spots around which the characters orbit. Vickys ubiquitous red jumper looks invitingly soft in Lees light, a dance club reeks of body heat and sweat, and a bar gives off an otherworldly radiance. Millenium Mambo is beyond lush in its visual presentation.
Hous versatility with the camera has never been better utilized. He continues his style of extremely long takes, but the camera movement and coverage of the action is so complete and nuanced that one is unaware just how long in coming those cuts are. This is just the opposite of Flowers of Shanghai, whose long takes were crumbling beneath the static weight of their artistic conviction.
Shu Qi is never less than convincing as Vicky, yet her performance never feels truly personal. She seems afraid to reveal too much or to dig too deep into herself. However, among Hong Kong and Taiwanese actors, she is a prime choice for representing her demographic, and her twiggy physique and rectangular flat-faced beauty are rather unique.
Millenium Mambo is Hous least pretentious work in some time. He has said it is to be the first in a series of movies covering contemporary Taiwanese culture. As long as he moves away from the mode of Goodbye South Goodbye, as beautiful as that film is, and toward the greater emotional openness of Millenium Mambo, this could be promising.
- George Wu