Of Time and the City
Chris Wisniewski on Millennium Mambo

Millennium Mambo begins, like a few of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s other films, in motion, here with a tracking shot of—what, exactly? They appear to be fluorescent lights. And then the camera tilts down into a shot following a young woman from behind, her immediate surroundings more discernable than before. Now we know what we’re seeing: Vicky (Shu Qi) is walking across a street bridge, her arms extended as she bounces forward in slow motion. She glances back; the camera keeps moving forward.

In her voiceover narration, Vicky starts to relate the basic plot of the film. Vicky is—or rather, was—trapped in a dead-end relationship with Hao-Hao (Tuan Chun-hao). They would break up and reconcile, over and over again, until she spent the NT$500,000 she had in the bank, at which point she would finally leave him. This all happened, Vicky explains from a future that exists only in her voiceover, ten years ago, in 2001. (Though Millennium Mambo takes place in its present, it is told in the past tense.) As we hear all of this, we continue to follow Vicky on the street bridge. We know more about her now, but we know nothing about what we are seeing. Where—and when—is she? Taipei? Japan? 2001? 2011? There’s no way to know, and it will only become less clear as the film progresses. All we can do is watch her.

Very little of consequence actually happens in Millennium Mambo—at least, not on screen. Each scene, from that opening tracking shot on, has a formless, shapeless drift to it, and a contextual ambiguity. The voiceover fills in some of the details. Like Dust in the Wind, Mambo charts the slow disintegration of a relationship against the thrilling and intimidating urban backdrop of Taipei. In order to make ends meet (what, we might ask, of the NT$500,000 she has in the bank?), Vicky takes a job as a hostess and meets Jack (Jack Kao), an older gangster. The nature of their relationship—whether it’s sexual or platonic—remains unclear, but she eventually leaves Hao-Hao after he cuts all of her clothes in half, and she takes refuge with Jack. At some point before her break-up with Hao-Hao (assuming, perhaps without reason, that the story is told chronologically), Vicky travels to Hokkaido with a pair of half-Japanese brothers she meets at a club. She returns to Japan at the film’s end in search of Jack, who leaves Taipei under mysterious circumstances and asks Vicky to join him abroad, only to disappear before she arrives.

Hou and screenwriter Chu T'ien-wen, who has written or co-written thirteen of Hou's films, diffuse whatever dramatic tension might be found in this narrative through their circuitous and elliptical storytelling. Vicky’s voiceover sometimes relays plot information before events are depicted onscreen; in other moments, the voiceover takes the place of dramatization altogether, while individual scenes appear to have no narrative consequence. The pieces don’t create a coherent whole. Millennium Mambo is structured more like the music on its throbbing techno soundtrack than a conventional narrative: she fights with Hao-Hao; she fights with him again; she meets Jack; she spends time with Jack; she goes to Japan; she fights with Hao-Hao; she spends time with Jack; she goes to Japan. Repetition, variation, return.

Disjointed and fragmentary, Millennium Mambo frequently confounds, and it doesn’t quite “add up.” This may be one of the reasons the film tends to get dismissed by many familiar with the director’s work as “minor Hou." Since Mambo is one of only a few of the director’s films to have found stateside distribution, there’s a whiff of elitism and obscurantism in the label, as though those of us neither lucky nor adventurous enough to attend international film festivals or repertory screenings at Anthology Film Archives will simply have to make do with this second-rate offering. More saliently, this valuation assumes a basically auteurist posture while demoting an “auteur text” to a level beneath our collective consideration.

A bridge between mid- and late-period Hou, Millennium Mambo deserves something more than this "minor" label so frequently applied to it. Mambo recalls a few of Hou's earlier films—not just Dust in the Wind but also Goodbye South, Goodbye and, in its focus on a young hostess caught between two men who wield a certain kind of power over her, Flowers of Shanghai (though here, the power that is wielded is more emotional than economic). Mambo is also a transitional work, the first of a series of films (Cafe Lumière, Three Times, and Flight of the Red Balloon) which concern themselves, in whole or part, with a single female protagonist living in a post-millennial urban center.

But even setting aside its position in Hou's ouevre, Mambo stands on its own as an incredibly accomplished, if less than fully satisfying, piece of filmmaking. Isn't it worth considering Millennium Mambo on the terms it sets for itself before making a prima facie judgment as to its merit, to ask why Hou's made a film that is so lovely and elusive, enthralling and empty? To put a very fine point on it, what if the film’s disjointed fragments and underdramatized vignettes are, in fact, the point?

Hou’s films have never tethered themselves to three-act structures or straightforward narrative storytelling; rather, the director tends to privilege visuality over narrative, mise-en-scène and character over plot and event. Millennium Mambo takes these impulses to an extreme with an uncharacteristic preponderance of medium and medium-close shots, a frequent use of telephoto lenses, and an insistent moving camera. The visuals are quite literally shallow and flat, and also frequently dizzying and anchorless. At times, his images, though conceived in his standard long-take style, approach abstraction. When Vicky first enters her apartment, the shot is out of focus as the camera pans left, a blur of light, shape, and color. In a later scene, she and Hao-Hao make love, and it’s impossible to tell where the camera is and what, exactly, we’re seeing. As the shot begins, we see her face behind (or perhaps reflected in?) blue and yellow glass, the sound of running water in the background. Then the water turns off, and she and Hao-Hao move, as does the camera. When it finds them again, after searching past other objects in the foreground, they are on a bed, framed from overhead, a flashing yellow light between them and the camera. Hou and his brilliant director of photography Mark Lee Ping-bin, who bathes the film in sumptuous neon lights, sometimes place the camera behind objects that obscure our field of vision; at other times, their camera will pan or tilt, however briefly, into a disorienting close-up of an object, wall, or barrier that similarly constricts what we see.

Hou's style has been called both observational and detached. In most of his movies, small social interactions unfold in graceful long takes, from a distance, in front of his fixed but roving camera (inclined, as it is here, to pans and tilts rather than dollies and cranes), providing oblique glimpses into the vast psychological, cultural, and historical currents that underlie and frequently constrain life as it's lived day to day. This style lends itself well to period pieces, particularly in a postcolonial cultural context where the tension between official histories and personal identities renders conventional attempts at periodization inadequate. Taken in this way, the odd temporal conceit of Millennium Mambo makes a certain kind of sense—by telling a story set in the present as a period piece, the film invites the same observational and detached stylistic approach of Hou's previous work. This is what makes Hou's gestures in the direction of visual abstraction all the more striking; at crucial moments, we're denied the visual information that would make Vicky's experience and environment more legible, forced instead to ponder Hou's compositions in more formal terms. Especially given how little context Hou and Chu provide for what we see, the images seem to signify less, bereft of the richness of meaning typically built into Hou's magnificently dense mise-en-scène.

The easy interpretation for all of this is that the millennial Taipei youth culture depicted in Mambo is itself fractured, superficial, and contextless. Looking back on herself, Vicky version 2011 brings sense and order—even narrative—to her wayward youth: She had a plan to stay with Hao-Hao until her money was spent. But nowhere does the film give evidence of the plan or the money. Instead, she drifts between moments, parties, cities, and men. The transience and short-sightedness of youth may sound like a somewhat hollow, potentially cloying structuring conceit for a feature film, but thankfully, there's more to it than that. Hou uses the indeterminacy of his characters—and his imagery—to push his filmmaking in a boldly imaginative direction. For a film that seems to elide the present tense—told from the perspective of the future, set in the future's past—everything we see is always also unremittingly, unrelentingly present. Was, is, and will-be coexist in Hou's Deleuzian succession of hypnotic and beautiful images, which are seen and felt, not apprehended and understood.

As the film ends, Vicky walks through Hokkaido in the snow. In voiceover, she reflects on the ephemerality of snowmen, doomed to melt in the rising sun. The deserted streets, decorated with old movie posters, are blanketed in the enveloping and fleeting winter white, an evocation of history, transience, and possibility. But the moment, like all others, is gone before it's grasped.