I first got interested in the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ director Hou Hsiao-hsien back in the 1980s when he was making films that explored the recent political history of the island through a series of family melodramas. I remember taking a friend to the NFT to see a new film by Hou in the London Film Festival. I think it must have been Daughter of the Nile (1987) which tells a tale about young people in Taipei. I remember that my friend was not impressed and I found it difficult to defend the film. I thought about that experience again when I saw Millennium Mambo. I realise now that I was unprepared for Daughter of the Nile which in some way was a precursor of Millennium Mambo.
As the title suggests, this is a film set around the millennium, told by a young woman from ten years in the future so it’s a bit weird to watch it now. There is little plot. Vicki (Shi Qi) is a stunningly beautiful young woman who appears to have drifted into a slacker mode living with her boyfriend Hao-Hao in Taipei. They fall out and she has a relationship with Jack, an older man who is some kind of criminal, works in a bar as a hostess and at one point travels to Hokkaido with two brothers who have a Japanese mother.
The film has four formal elements that are perhaps more important than the narrative content itself. Firstly, the experience of watching the film is ‘disturbed’ and perhaps made more dream-like, through a dislocation of the voiceover and the image track. The narrator tells us about events which are not on screen at that moment but which will appear some time later. This sense of confusion is compounded by a camera that is fixed much of the time and peers into the couple’s apartment, into bars and restaurants etc. so that much of the ‘action’ is in long shot unless characters move up close to the camera. Further confusion comes from the deliberate lack of focus at the start of some scenes so that the screen shows only shimmering colours which move behind a distorting lens. Even within scenes, the field of focus is so shallow that characters seem trapped in a woozy environment.
The shimmering colours are also present through deliberate design of costumes, lighting and interior decor. The camera shoots through flimsy curtains, hanging mobiles of reds and greens and blues, window frames and doorways. Vicky wears bright reds or white. The lighting in clubs and bars (and seemingly the apartment) uses ultraviolet (?) so that, for instance, Vicky wears a white bra or tee-shirt that literally glows in the dim surroundings. Finally, running throughout much of the film is a music track of ambient/techno music, mainly by Lim Giong. As you can tell, this isn’t my scene and I don’t know quite how to describe it!
This clip from the opening of the film demonstrates the hypnotic quality of the camerawork, setting, voiceover and music:
We do learn a little about Vicky’s past – she and Hao-hao came to Taipei from Keelung – and Vicky makes a second visit to Japan when Jack travels there attempting to solve a problem in his criminal activities. The Japanese sequences are visually different, mainly because the camera strays outside onto the streets (and peers at the rushing trains – an Ozu moment perhaps?). The town in Hokkaido is holding a film festival and there are many beautiful posters of classic and not-so-classic films (Jean Gabin v. Charles Bronson?). In Taiwan all the ‘action’ is claustrophobic and every shot is of an interior – or perhaps the balcony of the apartment.
I guess that Hou’s films are the ultimate test of cinephilia. Whereas in his earlier historical melodramas there was something for the average art cinema fan to chew on, in these films the pleasures on offer are limited to formal questions and teases about questions of narration and narrativity. The film seems to be a challenge to viewers. Does it have a metaphorical purpose? I’m not sure. (Hou himself has commented that young people, especially young women, seem to live their lives much faster now. Perhaps the film is a reflection on time – as the young woman sees it?) At times I was bored and frustrated and then angry with the abusive Hao-hao. Vicky is a seductive creation (seemingly on the verge of smoking herself to death) and I probably enjoyed the scenes with Jack the most, although the trips to Japan were also inviting. Shi Qi is undoubtedly a star (she also appears in Hou’s later film, Three Times) and I was interested to find out more about her from various fansites (such as shuqi.org). I hadn’t realised that she started in soft porn modelling and films in Hong Kong and that at one point she was in the running for the role in Crouching Tiger that went to Zhang Ziyi. I hope she gets challenging roles in the future.
I think that I would like to show this film to film students in order to discuss how Hou creates its hypnotic feel combining music, images and editing. The cinematography is by Mark Lee (aka Lee Pin-bing) whose work I now realise I have seen several times before (and look forward to on several upcoming movies). All the time in Millennium Mambo I was thinking about Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (HK 1996) which shares not only elements of the visual style, but also allusions to youth culture and criminality. I notice now that Mark Lee was an assistant to Chris Doyle on that shoot and that he later shot Wong’s In the Mood For Love. There is an interesting blog on the audio work in Millennium Mambo here.
The comparison with Wong Kar-wai is interesting. Wong’s films are for me more entertaining and Hong Kong is a more familiar milieu. Hou seems more for cinephiles in some of the films. However, I’ve got a couple more of Hou’s films to view in the next few months and I’m aware of the cult status that Millennium Mambo seems to be developing from the YouTube comments. You can follow our other Hou entries via this tag.