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Taipei. A voice off-camera looks back ten years to 2000, when Vicky was in an on-again off-again relationship with Hao-Hao. She's young, lovely, and aimless. He's a slacker. Cigarettes and alcohol fuel her nights. We see bits of her life: when Hao-Hao steals his father's Rolex and the police detain them; when she gets a job as a club hostess, where she meets Jack, who becomes her patron and protector; when Hao-Hao comes to the club, insisting on talking to her; when she visits Yubari, Japan, for its film festival in the dead of winter; when Jack must go to Japan to straighten out trouble caused by one of his acolytes. Does Vicky have any expectations? Does time simply pass? Written by
Apparently, the major critics were not willing. Hou Hsiao-hsien is no longer the Flavor of the Month, if the reception given to *Millennium Mambo* is any guide. Hou may no longer be trendy, but his latest film remains a masterpiece -- just another notch on the Master's belt. The critics castigated Hou for wasting our collective time with a movie about a party girl; simultaneously, they praised the juvenile *Kill Bill* to the skies. The critic for the New York Times essentially declared that the artistry in the movie wasn't worth it. The critic was "bored" by the artistry.
Meanwhile, those of us who are NOT bored by Hou's artistry may enjoy a feast of it in this edgy, profoundly sad movie. It's set in Taipei in 2001, though the narrating heroine "Vicky" (a gorgeous Shu Qi) speaks to us from 10 years in the "future". The film was actually MADE in 2001, though it didn't reach American shores until earlier this year: hence, an unintended poignancy arises from the fact that we, too, are looking at the film's events from the future -- a jaded, rancorous, post-September 11 future. We feel as despairing as the narrating Vicky sounds, and observe the decadent nightlife depicted here with the same sense of disbelief: were we really that hopeful, were we really that careless, when the new millennium was ushered in? In the first scene, she's walking -- almost dancing, really -- down a long concrete promenade under pale florescent lights, while the wall-to-wall techno music starts thumping ever louder. It's a moment of incandescent happiness in a movie that has few such moments.
For the unpleasant details soon assert themselves: she's getting spacey on drugs in a nightclub, returning home to a live-in boyfriend who is abusive, on drugs himself, and erratically but dangerously jealous. One scene, at once nasty and blackly humorous, shows the boyfriend literally sniffing for evidence of adultery on Vicky. The girl occasionally rebels at these indignities and leaves the jerk, but, "as if hypnotized", she always returns whenever he finds her and begs her to come back to him (and he ALWAYS finds her). Hou instinctively understands the self-destructive persona, and he meticulously illustrates Vicky's addictions, whether to cigarettes, booze, "excitement", or degrading sexual relationships. The narration gives us a crucial clue, as well: we learn that this boyfriend of hers convinced her to blow off her final high school exam years back, which basically made her a drop-out and started her on a path toward a wasted life. Hou also understands WHY we're self-destructive; he understands that failure is so much easier.
Occasionally, we get a break from the woozy-headed, nauseous neon underworld of Taipei and find ourselves in a snow-covered fantasyland on the Hokkaido island of Japan. Here, while frolicking in a winter wonderland with a casual Japanese boyfriend and his brother, Vicky reverts, with much relief, to childhood. There's a poignant moment when she leaves an imprint of her face in a mound of snow. The camera lingers lovingly on the image of the barely visible imprint -- it's as convenient a symbol as any for the barely visible life of a pretty party girl without talents or prospects, the type of girl one usually sees only fleetingly in movies about more melodramatic subjects like gangsters (and, yes, this movie is about gangsters, too). She's the hanger-on, the pretty ornament on the arm of the criminal. Well, leave it to Hou Hsiao-hsien, the world's greatest working director, to dare to assert that the Vickys of the world not only have a story to tell, but that their stories can be as bleak and nihilistic -- and as artfully rendered -- as any of your King Lears.
It goes without saying that the Hou's camera placement is utterly and simply without peer. If anything, *Millennium Mambo* marks an advance in his technique: he takes a little more control, here, and is not quite so blandly omniscient as he can sometimes be. It's hard to write about technicalities, but Hou somehow has managed to find the perfect balance between a focused POV and his more usual reliance on oblique reference points. His cameraman, Mark Lee Ping-Bing (of *In the Mood for Love* fame), gloriously realizes Hou's vision with incredible color: smeary and throbbing neon in Taipei, ethereal and misty white in Japan. Finally, Hou has also convinced me that techno and "Deep House" music can actually approximate art . . . as long as this type of music is paired with, well, a movie by Hou Hsiao-hsien. (See his *Goodbye South, Goodbye* for more evidence.)
*Millennium Mambo* is a must-see for the cineaste. 9 stars out of 10.
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