A circuitous and depressing film by the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, Millennium Mambo takes place in 2001, but, as the exhausted-sounding female narrator tells us, the events in the film happened “ten years ago”, giving a sheen of nostalgia and loss to the proceedings that is hard to pinpoint, hard to capture. Mark Li Ping-bin shot the film, and its visuals are the most striking thing about it. The story is barely there, really, the story is not the point. It’s about a mood, a time, a vibe, a Taipei vibe. The voiceover sometimes describes things (“Hao Hao stole his father’s watch, and the cops showed up with a warrant …”) and then we see the events go down, just as the voiceover said. There’s a repetitive feeling to it, a haze, appropriate because the characters are all pretty aimless, nobody has a job, drug use is a part of everyday life, and there’s a sense that they all are suspended in time, frozen, caught in a feedback loop of degradation, abuse, and a longing for escape. Vicky, the lead, is played by gorgeous Hong Kong actress Shu Qi. Vicky, as the voiceover informs us (using “she”, the current Vicky distancing herself from 2001 Vicky), started having sex at 16, and then got caught up in a relationship with Hao Hao (Tuan Chun-hao), who is a pouty self-absorbed DJ, a drug addict, a loser, and abusive. They rent an apartment together, cluttered, but decorated in bright candy colors, so that often it looks like they’re still in one of the many nightclubs where they spend most of their time. Hao Hao is unpredictable, goes through her things, quizzes her jealously, and tries to force her into having sex when she doesn’t want to. Her resistance is pretty half-hearted, a couple of slaps here and there. She seems more irritated than anything else. Mostly, she just lies back and takes it, before shoving him off. She gets a job as a hostess (i.e. stripper) and there meets Jack, (Jack Kao), a gangster involved in pretty shady stuff, but he is nice to her, and becomes a buddy, a protector. She is caught between the two men. But the ties that bind are flimsy, both are depressing alternatives. There are other men, too, a couple of Japanese brothers who invite her to visit their mountainous home in Japan for a film festival. She goes. They play in the snow. But then it’s back to Hao Hao. The voiceover tells us that Vicky could never get rid of him. He pestered her for years.
The main reason to see Millennium Mambo is to experience Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s work (his stuff very rarely gets releases over here, and he’s an absolutely wonderful director. Millennium Mambo is considered minor Hou, and is part of a larger loose trilogy.) Millennium Mambo is frustrating if you look for a regular conventional plot. It’s not here. Things happen. Then other things happen. We see people in closeup, the background completely blurred out, making them seem almost super-imposed on their own environment. The club-hopping is relentless, and the relationships are shallow and yet also sick and twisted, difficult to extricate yourself from. Late in the film, Jack tells Vicky that she could get a job in one of the coffee shops he owns. You don’t make a lot of money, but it would be a regular life. Vicky, who is not even 20 years old yet, looks at him sadly, almost confused. Could I just … do that? Leave all this? And “this” is no great shakes. But it’s been a trap, and Vicky, so young, can’t even imagine any other life for herself.
In a way, it’s a deeply strange film. It seems that nothing happens. And honestly, nothing really does. Every scene has a techno-beat thrumming underneath it, a buzz, and a hum of nightlife, even in quiet scenes in apartments. The nocturnal life is insistent, it will not let go easily.
The acting is good, nothing flashy, nothing intricate. Much of the dialogue feels improvised. There’s a messiness in the behavior, a repetitiveness sometimes, the arguments circling around awkwardly, as they do in real life.
That voiceover is haunting. There’s something missing in Vicky, some essential sense of self, some core. She’s young. Maybe that’s the problem. But there seems to be darker suggestions in the film, her passivity, her indifference, her lack of understanding that she is in charge of herself. You watch it and you want her to stay with those boys in Japan, playing in the snow, and eating good food cooked by the grandmother. That looked nice. But it’s a respite only, brief and surreal. The film opens with her, in slo-mo, walking across a bridge over a highway, smoking a cigarette, her arms occasionally flinging out with abandon and freedom, turning back to look at the camera, making sure we are watching. Hao Hao is horrible. Jack is protective but ends up stranding her in Tokyo. Who are all these people? Who is Vicky?
I still don’t know. It doesn’t seem to matter. It was an experience. A moment in time that already feels so so long ago.