Millennium Mambo (2001)

Review #1,310

Director:  Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Cast:  Shu Qi, Jack Kao, Tuan Chun-hao, Niu Doze
Plot:  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.

Genre:  Drama / Romance
Awards:  Won Technical Grand Prize & Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  119min
Rating:  M18 for language, drug content and some sexuality.
International Sales:  Fortissimo Films

Screened in 35mm as part of the ‘Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’ retrospective at the National Museum of Singapore.

Opening with a tracking long take in slow-motion, backed by the superb electronic ambient music of Lim Giong, and a flashback narration, we see Shu Qi (in her first role for Hou) on a sheltered bridge.  We sense her joy and carefreeness as she skips along the walkway and eventually hops down the stairs.  The camera doesn't follow her down—Hou wants to preserve that fleeting memory of happiness, the only time the protagonist, Vicky, felt the freedom to be herself. 

However, the opening shot is no more than just a lie.  With Millennium Mambo and through Vicky, Hou Hsiao-Hsien tries to capture turn-of-the-century anxieties, particularly of Taiwanese youths as they find their rootlessness and restlessness giving them a despairing sense of alienation and tedium. 

Vicky works in a pub, and comes back to a rented space where her DJ-wannabe, binge-drinking punk of a boyfriend also stays.  As the opening narration already suggests: this is not a relationship that can last, and throughout the film we bear witness to their fights and arguments, but also Vicky's shackling boredom. 

Like the youths depicted in the film, Millennium Mambo has no real direction.  Some may find it meandering and uninvolving, but the film offers a plethora of moments that would be regarded as stylish, particularly Hou's use of sound and music to accompany his visuals.  A long-time fixture in the sound department of Hou’s films, Tu Duu-Chih unexpectedly if deservingly won the Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. 

The scenes in Yubari, Japan, as Vicky visits a film festival in the dead of winter, sees Hou take his visuals to an incredibly sensuous level, almost dreamlike with no bearings of space and time.  It reminds us of the film’s carefree opening shot, as if such tonal evocation of these beautiful if short-lived memories continue to enchant.  In contrast, the confining and stagnating reality of Taiwan as experienced by Vicky is palpable. 

Shu Qi’s performance is superb, possibly one of the finest in her career, and in my opinion, even better than her displays in Three Times (2005) and The Assassin (2015).  We identify with her character not because she is someone whom we can empathize emotionally; rather, the fact that she is trying to seek an existential center that could ground her thoughts and feelings—in other words, to resolve her ennui—in a time of triviality and frivolity strikes a chord in us.  After all, aren’t we all trying to grasp the same thing?

Verdict:  One of Hou’s most stylish films that continues with his obsession with depicting ennui and alienation among youth, with Shu Qi giving a superb performance.


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