There has been no shortage of critical drumbeats for Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien over the years, but the enthusiasm has perceptibly cooled of late. Upon its rollout on the festival circuit in 2001, Hou’s Millennium Mambo drew a collective yawn from Cannes critics and didn’t even score Hou his usual invite to the New York Film Festival. The consensus was that he had put out a minor work, all surface and sheen without the spiritual or emotional heft of his best stuff. How ironic, then, that the director’s least appreciated film in years also received the one honor denied his other movies: a U.S. release.
It’s a pity that even his staunchest devotees gave his latest a half-hearted plug. Millennium Mambo may not be his best movie—it’s not even the best entrée to his sui generis cinema—but it is nonetheless the work of a filmmaker firmly in command of his art. Far from being minor, Millennium Mambo finds Hou pushing further with his experiments in narrative, even as it retains his hallmark humanism and grace. It’s an obstinate masterpiece that’s as deserving of defenders and an audience as his greatest movies.
The first of a planned trilogy about Taiwanese youth, Millennium Mambo opens with a scene reminiscent of another Asian master: Wong Kar-wai. In the blue glow of a fluorescent-lit overpass, a gorgeous Taipei woman sashays in rapturous slo-mo to the gentle throb of techno. This emblem of youthful abandon is Vicki (Shu Qi), and a hushed voiceover tells us that the year is 2001. Suffused with regret, the voice is a memory from the future, perhaps Vicki’s own, and its recollections of messy relationships and a life adrift are drained of nostalgia. The twilit idyll will be brief; youth will be wasted on the young, she all but whispers.
Depicting life in a vortex, the film offers a nonlinear succession of nightclubs, raves, drunken brawls, and lovers’ quarrels. We are told of Vicki’s relationship with Hao Hao (Tuan Chun-hao), a drug-addled delinquent prone to unpredictable fits of jealousy. Afraid of losing Vicki, Hao Hao, we are told, had once let her sleep in on the morning of an exam, keeping her from finishing high school. But the boy’s appeal, lost on us, seems ineluctable. “As if under a spell or hypnotized, she couldn’t escape. She always came back,” the voice tells us. That inability—or refusal—to break free from the lure of self-destructive addictions becomes Vicki’s defining trait, as well as her generation’s.
The closest thing to a father figure in this neon-lit oblivion is, no surprise, an underworld boss. The wise, deliberate Jack (Jack Kao) becomes Vicki’s de facto guardian angel, looking out for the willful party girl without asking for much in return. Strangely chaste considering they meet at the strip club where she works, their friendship offers the hope of escape for the increasingly miserable Vicki. Step-printed scenes of lovely nighttime drives with Jack recall the joie de vivre of the film’s opening, while an unseen gesture of generosity, the draping of a blanket on a sleeping Vicki, underscores the depth of Jack’s affection. In a movie obsessed with impermanence, however, such kindnesses are fleeting—and, as a late-story turn to Tokyo reminds us, angels are the most ethereal of creatures.
A wintry interlude offers another reminder of evanescence. Vicki’s visit to the Japanese island of Hokkaido provides a welcome respite for her and the audience. It also occasions the movie’s most breathtaking passages. Walking around the frostbitten streets of the small town of Yubari, Vicki sticks her face in a snowdrift. The ghostly imprint she leaves in the snow may well be the film’s loveliest metaphor. The town itself seems a piece of heaven on earth. As if prompted by the need for consolation, Hou goes back to Yubari’s deserted roads for his haunting closing images, a balm following the nocturnal miseries of Taipei.
If the movie’s hell of eternal returns—to the same nightclubs, to the same man—suggests no exit for Vicki, Hou’s decision to give us a voiceover from 10 years after also affords the prospect of hope. The achronological structure apes the fracturing of an obsessive memory. (The sequence of events, the movie seems to say, means nothing to the aimless.) In such a limbo, place rather than time becomes the primary marker of experience, an idea that Hou has explored before. In his last movie, Flowers of Shanghai (1998), the action was set entirely in a 19th-century Chinese brothel. The story took on the logic of an opiate dream, and chronology lost its significance. What remained was the oneiric insistence of the brothel’s rooms, halls, and doorways, the repositories of a shadowy past.
Millennium Mambo‘s collapsing of time isn’t its only affinity with Flowers of Shanghai. Cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bing, who shot Flowers of Shanghai and (with Christopher Doyle) Wong’s In the Mood for Love (2000), gives the movie a lambent warmth that feels like an expression of Hou’s humanism. His typically distanced camera records the follies of his characters without judgment. Therein, perhaps, lies many viewers’ frustration with the movie. As J. Hoberman wrote in his review, “Who really cares what costume this poor girl will wear to all tomorrow’s parties?” Well, Hou does, and the distance between our compassion and his may itself be a source of poignancy.
No less a valentine to its star than Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red (1994) was to Irène Jacob, Millennium Mambo actually revolves around a less idealized object of desire. Though obviously smitten with Shu Qi, Hou makes her at once simple and opaque, a wastrel so devoid of introspection she seems scarcely worthy of our attention. The same can also be said of Hou’s contemporary Taipei. A snapshot of globalized culture, Millennium Mambo holds out little hope for Taiwan’s youth, engrossed and benumbed as they are by their appetite for distraction. As in Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), Hou’s last picture set entirely in the present, all promises of forward motion are poised to end up stalled, in a roadside ditch, or in an anonymous Tokyo hotel.
A filmmaker fixated on the continuing past, Hou has become the foremost chronicler of our mortality. And yet his movies find tremendous solace in the timelessness of human experience. His period pieces are the closest thing celluloid has come to the power of old photographs, with their sepia-toned ghosts staring out from an ancient reality. Set in the present, Millennium Mambo memorializes the modern world, and it seems to whisper that this too shall pass. Far from being morbid, Hou observes human experience from a vantage closer to the clouds than the earth. It’s a moral position that explains his equanimity in the face of humanity’s limits; it may also account for the fact that this remarkable artist has yet to find his.