Saturday, August 07, 2004


Two days ago I finished watching Millenium Mambo, the 2001 film by the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, on DVD (I'd watched it once before in the theater a year or two ago). I've seen Hou referred to in several places as one of the greatest living directors, but the reviews I saw of Millenium Mambo generally saw it as minor compared to his other films. But I enjoyed it more than any of Hou's other films I've seen, except for Flowers of Shanghai and The Puppetmaster.

Unlike most of Hou's films, Millenium Mambo is set in the present, and it revolves around a young Taiwanese woman named Vicky. There's no real plot, just a series of scenes from Vicky's aimless life: she lives (for most of the film) with her unemployed boyfriend Hao-hao, with whom she has a stormy, on-and-off relationship; she goes to dance clubs; she hangs out with a gangster named Jack, who looks out for her. In a sense, the film is as much "about" Hou's deployment of color (most, if not all, scenes have a dominant color), light, and music (it's saturated with what I'm guessing is techno, though I don't really know) as it is about anything else. In one sequence that particularly struck me for some reason, Vicky playfully pushes a friend's face into the snow, and after he gets up, the camera lingers for a few seconds on the hollow left in the snow, where the imprint of his features is barely visible.

What really holds the film together, though, is Shu Qi's performance as Vicky. Most films are about romantics: people who follow their longings and desires, whatever they are, whole-heartedly. (It makes for better stories.) But Hou's characters tend to be pragmatists: the protagonist of The Puppetmaster and the courtesans in Flowers of Shanghai are examples. Vicky is a pragmatist too. She comes from a more middle-class background than Hao-hao, who tells her that they belong to two different worlds; and though Vicky gets angry at Hao-hao when he says this, and the narration says that Vicky always returns to Hao-hao as if hypnotized, from Shu Qi's performance one gets the sense that Vicky has deliberately chosen to temporarily visit Hao-hao's world (the narration also tells us that Vicky intends to leave Hao-hao permanently when her bank account is exhausted) and even that to a certain extent she's enjoying "slumming." In any case, Shu Qi makes Vicky a complex, vital character.

If you haven't seen any of Hou's films, this probably isn't the best place to start: Flowers of Shanghai, which has more of a story, would be better. But if you've seen and enjoyed, or been intrigued by, any of Hou's films, I strongly recommend this.

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