Millennium Mambo

Hou Hsiao-hsien goes contemporary—kind of—in a future-narrated tale of lost time.



Gliding by like a futuristic neon pipe dream birthed in the opium haze of his previous film, 1998's Flowers of Shanghai, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's latest film, Millennium Mambo, is Hou at his most heartbreakingly elegiac.


Though Mambo scans like a cross between Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love and Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar, those uninitiated in Hou's oeuvre could mistake the film's glowing nightlife as produced by a man who'd seen the Dirty Vegas Mitsubishi ad too many times and decided to make of it an aesthetic movement. Shame on them. For such a haunting tone-poem on the ethereal nature of time to take effect, the young and restless will need to give Hou enough time of their own for the woe to kick in.


A household name in the condos of film critics everywhere, Hou has an idiosyncratic style that's hard to resist once you catch its beat. Long, unmoving, and distant takes combined with a penchant for historical settings make Hou's films challenging, but also rewarding. The Puppetmaster, his 1993 film about a Taiwanese puppeteer enduring the Japanese occupation, was arguably the best film of the ‘90s (at least redoubtable Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum thought so).


The future is new territory for Hou, but he charts it elegantly, possibly because it's really the past. Though narrated from the year 2011, Mambo takes place in 2001, as Vicky (Qi Shu, The Transporter) tells the story of how and why she left her boyfriend Hao-Hao.


Hou seems just as at home in the world of Hello Kitty figurines and American t-shirts as he did in 1880s Shanghai. Mambo opens with a stunning shot of Vicky walking down a blue-lit tunnel, waving to the camera floating behind, her smile redolent of freedom and youth and limitless possibility. Yet the moment feels nostalgic, too, and as Hou's cruel story of youth wends on, it slowly becomes a lament for lost time, a dirge too elusive to specify whether it mourns a millennium, wasted youth, or even both.


Like Ramsay's Morvern, Vicky is most at home on the dance floor, where her aimlessness is transformed into ambience. Yet unlike Morvern, Vicky speaks, referring to herself both in the past tense and third person, a device that perfectly captures her alienation.


Vicky's closing monologue recalls a scene earlier in Mambo where she thrusts her face into a virgin snow bank. Hou lingers for just a beat longer than necessary on the delicate imprint left behind. And it hits you: tomorrow, it's gone.


--Joshua Avram

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