A new digital restoration of the 2001 film Millennium Mambo, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien,
gives audiences a chance to see its lush photography the way it looked on its first release. Now also seems like a good time to revisit this film, whose depiction of youth at the turn of the millennium feels — at least to me — at once contemporary and distant. From the first, the film’s retrospective narration from an unknown future enabled this kind of ambivalence.
“As if under a spell or hypnotized, she couldn’t escape. … She told herself that she had NT
$500,000 in the bank. When she’d used it up, she would leave him for good. This happened ten years ago, in the year 2001. The world was greeting the 21st century.” The Hong Kong-
Taiwanese actress Shu Qi narrates the story of her character, Vicky, a young woman who lives suspended in a haze of alcohol and smoky Taipei night-clubs. She shares a flat with a jealous, abusive boyfriend Hao-hao (Tuan Chun-hao). She leaves him and returns “again and again.”After one break-up, she starts working in a hostess club and spends time with a benevolent gangster named Jack (Jack Kao), who suggests how she might change her life.
The film immerses us in a world of aimless Taiwanese youth, and Vicky’s drowsy stasis suggests that, as the director has said, Taipei at the turn of the millennium is a city where nothing is really happening. Vicky’s generation has little connection to (or even knowledge of?) the tumultuous history of postwar Taiwan that was the subject of many of Hou’s best-known films. But even as she drifts without roots — and I don’t think this has always been recognized — the film also ascribes to her a kind of radical freedom. In an interview, Hou compared Vicky to the courtesans of his previous film, Flowers of Shanghai, who in his view paradoxically enjoy a freedom of choice denied to many Chinese women in their time. Vicky’s work in a hostess bar may be a trap, but it also gives her independence, if she could only break free of Hao-hao.
Hou has also discussed how characters in his films express themselves through indirection; he calls this “cloudiness,” and it motivates his films’ elliptical storytelling. In Millennium Mambo, the cloudiness is partly visual: Vicky and her friends inhabit smoky, neon-lit interiors, and one saturated color sometimes takes over the whole frame. (The cinematography is by Hou’s longtime collaborator Mark Lee Ping-bing, who filmed Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, released the previous year.) Human forms flatten into neon haze or an Yves Klein blue in scenes of club life where Vicky dulls her senses and thoughts. These scenes, though set to throbbing techno music, are also distinguished by a quiet tenderness.
Hou Hsiao-hsien made many of the major films of the Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s, and he received international attention for A City of Sadness (1989). He has made other films about youth and contemporary life, but by 2001 he was best known for formally rigorous dramas about Taiwan’s postwar history. These films tend to have elliptical narratives: as audience members, we see situations more often than events, and we infer what may have taken place in the gaps offscreen. He often employs improvisation with nonprofessional actors. In Millennium Mambo, working with professional actors (some of whom may be playing versions of themselves), he and writer Chu Tʻien-wen produced a scenario for each scene and worked with the cast to develop the dialogue; Hou then filmed the rehearsals.
But he turned in a new direction with this film, which was originally conceived as part of a set of movies about problems of contemporary life. Some early reviewers expressed doubts about the result: the characters are shallow, the story threadbare, nuanced textures replaced by surfaces. Had formally rigorous dramas given way to empty stylization and gimmick? Hou admitted uncertainty about his project; he seems to have struggled to find the right angle or distance.
But the difficulty also pushed him into new experiments, like the distancing device of third-
person narration from some future vantage, which fundamentally changes the film’s tone.
Maybe it’s not a fully adequate account of a generation, but that may never have been the right question. It grapples in earnest with the problem of how to understand the present: both the historical present and the lived present in which, as Henri Bergson wrote, “All sensation is already memory.” The film opens a space of freedom between immersive nostalgia and a possible future. The joyful but temporally uncertain scenes in snowy Hokkaido are as moving as anything Hou has made.
Millennium Mambo screens at The Beacon, 4405 Rainier Avenue South (phone: 206-420-SEAT) on February 17, 18, 20, and 23. It is also streaming online at metrograph.com.