Likely the world’s most revered director—atleast in the land of cinephilia—Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien plunges headlong into gaga youth culture with Millennium Mambo, a movie that seems designed to complement a jumbo tapioca bubble tea.
Millennium Mambo, which generally under-whelmed the 2001 Cannes Film Festival but is virtually unique in Hou’s oeuvre for having a theatrical opening in New York, is not without its milky pleasures. These are mainly visual. Essentially a rapt homage to Hong Kong starlet Shu Qi, Millennium Mambo is sensationally shot by Mark Li Ping-bin (Flowers of Shanghai, In the Mood for Love). The low-light electric palette is a continual source of wonder. A smoky club is transformed into a blue grotto dotted with patches of red; the backstage dressing room models Shu’s face with seemingly impossible pink and yellow highlights.
The story line is scarcely more than an anecdote, but Hou still manages to play with its narrativity. First seen in a kind of advertisement for herself, teenage Vicky (Shu) is presented in a long take and carefree slo-mo walking through the fluorescent arches of a grimy pedestrian overpass somewhere in Taipei. Her narcissism is a given, although rarely again will she ever seem so active and free, as the movie immediately flashes back to her convoluted past. Millennium Mambo basically concerns Vicky’s unsatisfying relationships with two men—her youthful lover, the druggie layabout, sometime-DJ Hao-hao (Tuan Chun-hao), and a somewhat older gangster, Jack (Jack Kao), whom she meets while working as a bar hostess. The main drama is largely offscreen and the structure is mildly achronological; Vicky’s third-person voice-over—narrated from the perspective of 2011—sets up and sometimes contradicts each episode throughout.
Where Hou’s films are typically rooted in a particular time and place, Millennium Mambo lacks specificity—unless it’s meant to be grounded in the endless technopop backbeat that provides the context for the various restaurants and discos. The natural world is pretty much absent, except for the mysterious scenes in which the adorably parka’d Vicky finds herself frolicking in the snow of wintry Hokkaido—for a film festival yet! Perhaps Vicky creates her own atmosphere. She is in every scene, although the mobile camera is sometimes equally fascinated by the surrounding decor—the beaded curtains or guttering candles in the cramped apartment she shares with the jealous Hao-hao.
Vicky seems largely indifferent to sex, but she is inexplicably in Hao-hao’s thrall, responding to his paranoid rages with ineffectual anger. Hao-hao is her sullen fate—she can never escape him—although she does seek refuge in Jack’s minimalist Buddhistic pad. In one of the more elaborately choreographed sequences, Vicky is shown via video surveillance camera, passed out in front of Jack’s apartment. (Ultimately she manages to crawl inside and throw up.) Jack’s protection is, however, as illusory as Hao-hao’s love. Following the gangster’s enigmatic instructions, Vicky is stranded in Tokyo. If she’s lost in translation, he’s already moved on. But so have they all, given the movie’s retrospective long view.
Slim and fine-featured, Shu is pretty but vacant. As lightweight as she seems, this insipid heroine gives Millennium Mambo a vertiginous spin. This smitten movie has no anchor. Hao-hao’s obsession with Vicky mirrors Hou’s (although perhaps he is moved not only by his actress but by her character’s lack of consequence). In a sense, Millennium Mambo is a mildly prurient portrait of Shu moving, drinking, smoking, and changing clothes—it’s analogous to one of Andy Warhol’s Edie Sedgwick films, but without the existential drama. Who really cares what costume this poor girl will wear to all tomorrow’s parties?