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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
In a revealing interview included on the DVD, Hou Hsiao Hsien says he wanted "Millennium Mambo" to be a picture of Taipei night life and also "much more," a "multifaceted" film with "multiple points of view" that he would have liked to make six hours long; something post-modern and deconstructed and free-form and improvised, but "modernist" too in some aspects.
The actual film isn't so much multifaceted or plot less as it is a portrait in the moment of a few people composed, with a voice-over from ten years later, from the point of view of a pretty middle-class girl called Vicky (The bee-sting-lipped, doe-eyed Qi Shu, who also stars in the present-day chapter of Hou's recent "Three Times") who's stuck in a dysfunctional relationship with a spoiled, also pretty, middle-class boy, the bleached-haired Hao Hao (Chun-hao Tuan), who does drugs and hits on Vicky when she least wants to be hit on and who won't work and, as Vicky's omnipresent voice-over tells us, at one point has stolen his dad's Rolex and pawned it for a lot of money. They live together and hang out at clubs and Vicky works at a bar as a "hostess," a euphemism for a lap dancer who does drugs and drinks with customers and probably has sex with them -- like Liang Ching (Annie Shizuka Inoh) the actress-narrator of Hou's 1995 "Good Men, Good Women." Vicky's bar job gets her involved with an older gangsterish man named Jack (Jack Kao, the actress Liang Ching's dead lover in "Good Men").
"Millennium "Mambo" doesn't show us Taipei nightlife in any collective or panoramic sense. It shows us -- a few times -- the hazy corners of a few bright clubs with little crowds of attractive young people playing games and doing drugs and alcohol, and it shows us -- many times -- corners of the apartment where Vicky and Hao Hao live, and bits of a mountain town in Hokkaido, Japan where Vicky goes, invited initially by a couple of boys she meets.
Atypically for Hou, the camera moves around quite a bit too in this film, following the people and hugging their faces and bodies -- but also lingering, in his old style, statically observing doorways, walls, light fixtures, or windows with a train going by outside. Many cigarettes are lit, many are smoked. Meth is puffed in a pipe. Hao Hao pouts. Vicky looks sad or angry. The couple break up, but Vicky comes back, or Hao Hao comes after her. It's approach/avoidance: he tells her she's from another planet, but he keeps getting her back. Jack is an oasis for Vicky; but at a crucial time in winter when she goes to Japan, he isn't available, leaving her a key and a cell phone, to wander the streets. She lies in bed. She stares out the window. In a long outtake on the DVD about her Japan sojourn, Jack actually calls her and she's got a cold. In the final cut, he never calls, and she remains healthy. What's left isn't much, though as always for Hou and for many Chinese directors, the visuals are lush and beautifully lit, even if the frames are empty and the plot line, though never absent as his interview promises, goes nowhere. "Millennium Mambo's" reference to the end of the millennium (and perhaps changes in China and Hongkong?) seems, like the six-hour movie and the portrait of Taipei nightlife Hou promises in his interview, to have come to us as little more than the pretty but empty fragments of a vague, lost intention. This is a remake of Antonioni's "L'Avventura," in winter, with young attractive Asians -- and Qi Shu as the new Monica Vitti -- but without the world-weariness or awareness of any sort of fading cultural heritage, and with, instead of Antonioni's haunting white noise, a nagging techno score.
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