BAMcinématek’s series of orphan movies, drawn from the results of the Voice‘s year-end critics’ poll, continues this weekend with the local premiere of Millennium Mambo (June 29), the latest (and first of a planned “youth” trilogy) by famously undistributable Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien. Even Hou’s usual champions were lukewarm in this case—the film barely made a ripple at Cannes, and the director’s longtime patron, the New York Film Festival, failed to issue the customary invite. But this shimmering excursion through Taipei nightlife—scored to a ghostly, faraway electro throb and coated in a neon glaze by cinematographer Mark Lee—is a slow burn of profound sadness salved by some of Hou’s most breath-catchingly beautiful passages to date.
Case in point: The opening tracking shot, slightly slowed down and flooded with resigned Wong-ian narration, tails a young woman as she blithely strides along a covered, fluorescent-lit footbridge, smoking a cigarette and occasionally peering over her shoulder. The movie concludes with another backward glance, a literal invocation of movie magic: snow falling on old film posters high above a deserted Main Street. In between, Mambo in some ways revisits Flowers of Shanghai, Hou’s brothel-set period piece—it’s also a story of entrapment shrouded in an opiate fog. Though the camera is more restless than usual (there are fractionally more cuts too), the film’s subject is inertia. Twentyish Vicky (the impossibly luminous Shu Qi), stuck with a possessive, good-for-nothing boyfriend, strikes up a friendship with an older, pensive mobster (Hou regular Jack Kao), and arrives at a new equilibrium by the end. But Hou charts her metamorphosis via chunks of purposefully stagnant real-time, punctuated by fleeting, deciduous epiphanies. The vortex-like structure of flashbacks within flashbacks is further complicated by hindsight: Vicky’s rueful voice-over is situated 10 years in the future, and the narration often simply relates the action that will follow a few scenes hence, freighting the film with a vertiginous déjà vu. A mid-movie detour to a mountain town in Hokkaido occasions facial imprints in a snowbank. It’s Millennium Mambo‘s single most exquisite image—an indelible symbol of evanescence.