September 23, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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The opening shot of Hou Hsiao-hsien”s newest film Millennium Mambo is a continuous image of life lived blindly and wildly in a swift, never-ending cycle. A young woman is filmed running through a street side corridor at night to a continuous techno beat, the garish quality of artificial light casting the entire scene with feeling of delirium.

This is where the narration begins. The young woman is named Vicky (Shu Qi) and she is speaking from a time far removed from the one being shown before our eyes. Millennium Mambo, you see, is a memory from Vicky”s youth back in 2001 narrated by her, older and more mature in 2010. The Vicky of 2001 was distinctively less sober in her conduct. Trapped in a relationship with an unemployed idler of a boyfriend named Hao Hao (Chun-hao Tuan), Vicky begins working as a bar hostess. This is where she eventually meets Jack (Jack Kao), an older man who possesses stability in all the ways that Hao-Hao doesn”t, but is also a gangster. The dilemma is now apparent and the love triangle is rendered even more dangerous when taking into account the savage possessiveness that Hao-Hao exhibits toward Vicky (he looks through her phone records to make sure she doesn”t make calls that last too long).

As a director, Hou skillfully pairs all the different facets of film to successfully give his movie an overall, emotional implication. There is no lesson here, unless you attempt to piece together some warning against a purely hedonistic lifestyle. Hou does not judge any of his characters. They are merely inhabitants of a frenetic world, trying to find meaning through themselves and relationships with others.

Visually, the film is relentless in establishing a consistent mood. Millennium Mambo takes place in a world composed solely of everlasting night or overcast days. Bathed always in artificial light, the movie capitalizes on the bright yet empty feel of nightlife in the city. The frequent cool blues and gaudy reds give the movie a dream-like quality because each day seems to bleed into the next until every moment in the passage of time becomes identical. The distinct visuals are paired with a loud, techno soundtrack that also reflects the cycle of meaningless nighttime pleasures. The club scenes become vapid facsimiles of their intended purpose and a sense of sadness is wrought from this continual pursuit of the partier”s lifestyle. When not accompanied by fast, electronic dance beats, the movie is entirely silent, a move by Hou that accentuates the uncomfortable quality of specific scenes and reflects the emptiness resulting from certain modes of existence.

Frequently smoking, drinking, or doing drugs, the cast of characters is a sullen lot and initially we wonder which one of them it is that we must feel sorry for. Is it Vicky, inherently full of energy and joy from living who becomes a gloomy version of her youthful, past self after years of emotional and physical abuse from Hao-Hao? Shu Qi plays Vicky with dismal sulkiness, as the poster child for what a taxing lifestyle can result in. Paired with such a youthful face, Vicky”s numbness to all things shocking in her life resonates deeply with the audience.

Surreal at times and always an intensely visual experience, Millennium Mambo is constructed to reflect a way of life. Narrated with sobering calmness by the heroine”s older self, the film attempts to make sense of Vicky”s past as she searches for her own self-identity. The movie progresses with an ominous feeling of inevitability because we almost instinctively know that Vicky”s path in life cannot end in happiness. Her continuous pursuit for stability has been so warped by the consequences of bad decisions that in end, Vicky only seeks out the worst choices.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang