Two and a half years after Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 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, Hou’s 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 Hou’s recent output and is definitely a step in the right direction for him.
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 Vicki’s life in the year 2001. She lives with her paranoid and impulsive boyfriend, Tuan Chen-Hao (also the actor’s 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 dad’s 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, he’s 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 she’s not remotely interested, Vicky and Ko Takeuchi playing in the snow, Hao-Hao’s 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 Kubrick’s film, this device provides a tone of historical detachment, though Hou’s 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 Bing’s neon-glow cinematography. Hou’s work has become unimaginable without the contribution of Lee. Under Lee’s eye, a lamp, window, or candle transforms into onscreen hot spots around which the characters orbit. Vicky’s ubiquitous red jumper looks invitingly soft in Lee’s 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.
Hou’s 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 Hou’s 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.