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|Index||26 reviews in total|
Hou's latest film, I saw as part of Village Voice's Best Undistributed Films of 2001 series, feels like a mixing and modulation of his last three: a young woman's abortive but contemplative contemporary existence (GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN), a moment-by-moment addiction to thrill-seeking (GOODBYE SOUTH GOODBYE) and a love affair entombed in drugs (FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI) all figure into Hou's attempt to lyricize the moment we are living in -- NOW. The result is a film that seems immensely fascinated in each moment it is capturing -- luminescent bodies dancing in an underground rave; a man inhaling and exhaling smoke from a makeshift bong; the absolute wonder of one's facial imprint in an immaculately white snowbank -- until those moments lead to other moments of inescapable banality or dread. Hou enhances this addiciton-to-the-moment with a voice-over that takes place in 2010, giving away plot points before they happen on-screen; since narrative convention no longer matters, the result is an even more intense experience of the moment tied in with an odd sensation of retrospection (no one messes around with the concept of history more than Hou). The give-and-take of this kind of project is that not everything will succeed on a dramatic level, but the experience of this film (and I do mean *experience*) is too exquisite to be denied. There are no less than half a dozen moments in this film, easily the most sumptuously photographed of the year, whose sheer beauty in harmonizing time and image are timeless treasures: objects and settings seem to take on a life of their own, before they are inevitably swept under the ever-moving carpet of time.
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
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.
I saw this movie at Vancouver International Film Festival. As typical of
HHH movie showing, some audiences walked out, which means it is
Again with his customary long shots, all the acting and actions appear
realistic. Jack Kao is convincing and cool as always. Shu Qi brings a
credible portrayal to a not-so-interesting character. And the movie has a
lyrical feel (especially the opening tracking shot and the snow scenes),
accompanied nicely by the atmospheric theme music.
However, the two main characters just don't have appealing personalities. Like the characters in "South Goodbye South", both Vicky and Hao are restless, aimless & not very bright. (Lifeless) Rebels without a cause. I am wondering whether this is how Hou and Chu (the screenwriter) perceive the twentysomethings in Taiwan. Since Vicky is narrating from 10 years into the future, I do realize she will mature. Her transformation that starts here was not shown convincingly though. I also know that this is the first of a series of films on this decade, but it doesn't feel fully realized on its own.
I also have a slight problem with the narration preceding the real events. It makes the expected events boring, when the real events don't bring anything extra (e.g. contradiction, irony) to the narration.
Compared to "South Goodbye South", this one may not be as ambitious thematically. While "South Goodbye South" has a lot of boredom and dread (possibly intentionally so), I like the poetic, reflective and semi-nostalgic mood of "Mambo" much more.
To my surprise this movie hasn't been reviewed, and from what I gather
other external reviews either they think its empty and boring, or believe
that Hou Hsiao-Hsien has gone wrong. Neither is true.
Hou has matured his style over the years, and instead of staying with the same historic movies he has moved to the present where he is needed the most. Finally we can see a depiction of the youth's life, which is common to the rest of the modern world, and we see the influence of the west, the decadence of a culture, the fast extinguishing life of a young woman. All seen through an objective heart, not judging or celebrating, but offering comprehension. Very often do we see movies made by the same young people or for commercial needs, when they are more interested in suprising you or make it a music video, and even when Hou uses music a lot he doesn't subordinate his camera or story to it.
Maybe it hasn't had a proper release, but anyone with a chance to see it shouldn't miss it. This is a serious and difficult film, and even if you enjoy it for the first time (which is not common), you'll have to repeat the viewings to understand that the most valuable thing in the movie is Time, and Hou is a filmmaker in the true sense, a sculptor in time as Tarkovsky would had called him.
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
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.
A hollow life is observed clinically but sympathetically in this melancholy, graceful film, which is itself hollow but compelling, like the dance beat it is set to. The director uses a convention I hadn't seen since early silent films: a summary description of an action, followed by its acting out. Also, the story is narrated from a time yet to come. These devices create the sense that the events have happened before--as they have, in the cyclical, purposeless life we are witnessing--and also that they are inevitable. The story is narrated in the voice of the leading character, but in the third person: an older self from a real future? or an alternate reality? or only her imagination? The narration is necessary as a comment on the characters' behavior because in the numb and mindless hedonism that draws them in and keeps drawing them (she keeps leaving the boyfriend who embodies this life style but keeps returning to him) they are never shown as capable of thought. Whether the film means to say that, or is simply limiting its view and depth of field to exclude their thoughts as peripheral to their lives, this lack works to unconvince us. The characters are shown in attitudes of thought but never speak anything like a thought, even a stupid one; they are moved entirely by want and impulse. The hedonist boyfriend is shown as having friends; how? Nobody not brain-dead exists in a state of pure mindlessness. That is the view of parents whose adolescent refuses to talk to them: who can understand these kids? This film describes a life--and this is an interesting accomplishment, but a relatively narrow one. More difficult, in this milieu, and ultimately more interesting would have been to discover the person whose life it is (or will have been).
I find that I can't get this film out of my mind. This is one of the saddest, most depressing films I've seen in a few years. I think one of the reasons why it is so sad is that the director juxtaposes scenes where Shu Qi is radiantly happy to those where she's stuck in her miserable life, and I think this contrast amplifies the depressing circumstances we see. As others have mentioned, this film doesn't have much of a plot, and I personally find these kinds of films difficult to appreciate. But for some reason, I find myself strangely compelled by this film. I agree with an earlier poster that the opening scene of Shu Qi running in slow motion with the techno music throbbing in the background (from a PHENOMENAL soundtrack as others have also noted) is extremely powerful and compelling. Early in the movie, I also liked the scene where Shu Qi is being "checked out" by her whacked out boyfriend, and she barely tolerates it in classic passive-aggressive style. I think the long takes with little action work because Shu Qi is so compelling (re: gorgeous), that she can just sit there smoking a cigarette and the audience (or at least me) is totally captivated.
The mood in which I left after viewing Millennium Mambo was a heavy sort
depression. I felt as if I had experienced, or re-experienced through
memory, events causing one to give in to hopelessness; to accept being
dominated by another. In retrospect, Vicky describes this period of time
being hypnotized or under a spell. Hou Hsiao-hsien is successful in
that spell on his audience. Three aspects of the film lend to this
the non-sequential unfolding of events, the use of long-takes from a more
less distant perspective, and the sound track.
One of the first glimpses into Vicky¡¯s life with Ah Hao is at a time in
their relationship when she has already given up. From here we are taken
further back to various points in their relationship. There is no story
se, she is simply caught in this cycle of him finding her and her leaving,
yet we do learn how she ended up in this cycle. There was a time when she
resisted his advances, when she scolded his dangerous drug use, a time
before she felt trapped. Knowing the end result of their relationship
maintains a sense of hopelessness throughout the film. It is this
sense of hopelessness, with no comic relief or side story to lift the
of the mood, that causes the audience to experience the spell she is
¡°Cold, and colder, that was what I demanded of my camera¡± When I read
this quote I immediately recalled the scene I mentioned above, when Vicky
endures Ah Hao¡¯s advances, sexual or otherwise, annoyed, but in complete
submission and as a matter of routine. The camera follows him to the
straining to see through the table obstructing the view but not getting
closer. While this may have been a mixture of ¡°pathos and eros¡± as Ah
smelled her body for the scent of other men it was indeed a disturbing
violation that the camera forced the audience to participate in by calmly
looking on. Other long-takes, showing two or more simultaneous
actions, helped to invoke her sense of loneliness and the monotony of her
life as the minutes dragged.
Thirdly, the soundtrack, with its hypnotic beat and mix of high-pitched,
eerie sounds, matched the repetition of events played out on the screen.
was the DJ, controlling the sounds added over the same, never-ending
This is what she lived with, day in and day out. Even as she is walking
alone over the bridge, the same music is playing in her head.
I'm sick and tired of reading complaints from people that this film (as
as most of Hou Hsiao-hsien's others) are too boring, impersonal, detached,
plotless, etc. Generally speaking, people don't just casually walk into one
of Hou's films; chances are, if you go and see one, you already know
basically what to expect -- which is, more or less, the polar opposite of
That said, Hou's films are among the most artful, innovative, breathtaking,
and purely cinematic (in the absolute best sense of the word) made today,
and Millennium Mambo is certainly no exception. In fact, I would even rank
it as one of Hou's five best films (along with Flowers of Shanghai, Goodbye
South, Goodbye, The Puppetmaster, and A Time to Live and a Time to Die).
The film is exquisitely photographed by Mark Li Ping-bin, whose camera here is even more hypnotically mobile than usual, and -- perhaps to an even greater extent than in any of Hou's previous features -- takes on an ambiguously voyeuristic role. There are scenes in Millennium Mambo that are among the most haunting and beautiful in, not only Hou's cinema, but in all modern world cinema. The opening voice-over sequence (that calls to mind the best voice-over work from the films of Wong Kar-wai and Terrence Malick), the scene where Vicky lies in bed with the window reflection of the untuned television sumperimposing the passing trains behind her, and the scene set amidst the snowdrifts are probably the finest examples, but there are countless others, as well. Shu Qi is positively luminous in the film's central role. Her performance is, at times, even reminiscent of those by Anna Karina, Liv Ullman, and Monica Vitti for Godard, Bergman, and Antonioni, respectively. The supporting performers (especially Jack Kao) are also superb.
As you can probably guess, I love Hou Hsiao-hsien and Millennium Mambo. I will be the first to concede, however, that his films are decidedly not for all tastes. They are usually very deliberately-paced, sometimes require knowledge of Asian (almost always Taiwanese) history (which means - god forbid - research for most viewers), and never feel in the slightest like Hollywood product. Now you've been warned. If this doesn't sound appealing or entertaining to you, then go watch Pearl Harbor. But if it does, I highly recommend that you check out Millennium Mambo (as well, as Hou's other films - all of which are genuinely worthwhile).
My rating: 10/10
The opening scene in which Vicky runs in slow motion accompanied by
some fine techno music is amazing. This scene haunts me to the present
day (and I've seen the film in 2001) and is in my opinion just
visually/technically stunning. Also the colours which Hou Hsiao-hsien
captures are amazing, eye candy. I've seen the Film at a film festival
and liked it a lot. It may seem boring to some people because there
seems to be no real given story (with twists and turns to be expected).
But the slow development of the story depicts real life and pulls one
deeper into the movie.
Also I wanted to note that the film is also known as "chie shi manpo" - millennium mambo.
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