dHҪi (2001)
Millennium Mambo

Reviewed by: Hyomil
Date: 01/13/2011

Reviewer Score: 1

Reviewed by: magic-8
Date: 06/29/2002
Summary: Yawn!

Hou Hsiao-hsien crosses the thin line between art and pretentiousness in his film "Millennium Mambo." The story revolves around Shu Qi's relationship with loser boy friend, Tuan Chun-Hao, an unemployed drug addict, who takes out his self-loathing on Shu. Hou gives us the detachment of the characters by placing the camera in a static position away from the leads. Essentially giving us a view as if we were watching a play. But since we are so removed from the characters' interactions (some scenes are filmed from one room, so you need to peer into another, creating even more distance), we are left cold and wanting. Instead of using the camera to bring us into the story, we are left outside looking in. The relationship between Qi and Tuan is so dour that we also lose interest in them.

It becomes increasingly hard to get into the film with its sterile presentation of a relationship on the brink of disaster. Hou isn't interested in entertaining, he's only showing his disdain for the audience. Unfortunately, the viewer has to be able to decipher the thing. At first, the viewer strains at keeping up with what is happening on screen, but unless you're very forgiving of such aloof storytelling, you'll become frustrated at the director's choices. Instead of feeling like we are invading a couple's privacy, we are treated more like patients in a waiting room dying of boredom.

Reviewed by: LeeWong
Date: 05/13/2002
Summary: Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo

From http://liquid2k.com/asiantemple/

By Lee Wong (5/10/02)

A beautiful girl dancing her way through a neon lit overpass, almost like she's floating in mid air, free of any thought and responsibility awaits her future, smiling at the camera. This is the opening image of Hou's latest offering, one that generated a lot of skepticism, mostly because of Hou's sudden change of subject.

Hou's fans used to his poetic, visually arresting dramas depicting Taiwan's rural life might feel disappointed by Milennium Mambo. This is the first of six films (to be realized in the next ten years) that deals with Taiwan's present youth, and is devoid of the long pans, evocative images and detached shooting style that have typified Hou's work. It's not a complete U-turn in filmmaking for the taiwanese master, because some of his touches are still present, but this film feels much closer to Wong Kar-wai's style of filmmaking than of the past Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Vicky (SHU Qi in her best performance to date) just moved from Keelung to Taipei, and is trying to find her identity and her place in the world. All she has is 500,000 NT$ to spend and her techno-obsessed boyfriend Hao Hao (TUAN Chun-hao), who keeps checking her every move, even her phone card. She, like many others in the same situation, is looking for something to hold onto, something stable, but that's hardly the case in today's world. Her days consist of clubbing, taking drugs and fighting with Hao Hao over just about everything unless they're occasionally taking a break from it and having sex (or Hao Hao is trying to seduce her in an inept, yet funny way).

Cue Jack (Jack KAO), a gentle gangster and bar owner who finally gives Vicky something stable: a father figure. One could argue that Jack's character represents Hou himself trying to protect and watch over his "kids." Jack is probably the most sympathetic figure in this film full of matter-of-fact personalities without too much embellishing. It's clear there's no sexual tension between the two, but you get the feeling that Vicky is slowly getting back to normal life with Jack, thing that couldn't happen with Hao Hao. Jack wants to protect these young people, but somehow he can't get involved too much in their life.

It's almost impossible to recreate the plot without writing at length and ruining the fun of experiencing the film. This is clearly not a film based on storytelling, but like the films of Wong Kar-wai it uses mood and images to present a world so insecure and unstable, so multicultural that it can't find its identity. For that reason, the film requires at least a second viewing, not necessarily to get into the characters, but more to try to understand what the director is aiming for.

The fact that the film is told as a memory, 10 years in the past (Vicky's voice- overs are from the year 2010) helps Hou to remain detached from his characters, because delving deeper into the character's mind would mean losing the bigger picture. Most of the characters live in a vacuum, refusing to acknowledge any semblance of identity (they use western names and are inundated by western culture in everything they do), they have their own small world full of instability but they do want to change. The problem is, change brings tough choices, change bring responsibility, change brings sacrifices, and they probably don't want to endure all that. That is probably the reason why Hao Hao keeps coming back to Vicky, and the relationship with Jack doesn't quite work out like Vicky expected.

This is one of the most demanding films of the last few years because it asks you to understand the message but doesn't give you the tools to get into those characters. The great visuals, the pumping techno music and the atmosphere generate a mood that almost make you forget the story. Hou's message might not be easy to grasp at first. He uses a style that closely resembles the Wong Kar-wai of Chungking Express (emotional instability, fear for the future, disconnection from the outside world, a lack of human contact) and In The Mood For Love or Ashes of Time (emphasis on mood, images, music and atmosphere over storytelling and involving characters). Yet, this is clearly still a Hou film, with its detached view of the world, slow moving cinematic style (although there are more close-ups than usual and less long takes) and great realism.

Hou is able to show the lives of these young people in a powerful way without resorting to cheap plot devices or overly manipulating storytelling. This Hou film will take a while to get into, but I'm positive it's an interesting new direction and one that will generate very good films.

8.5 (Excellent)

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: danton
Date: 04/01/2002

Normally, you'll watch a movie and know if you liked it or not afterwards. Either it left you cold, or it engaged you emotionally. In fact, commercial movies are designed to trigger that emotional response above everything else. You are supposed to get involved with the happenings depicted on screen. You're supposed to hate or love the ficticious characters, and to share their artificially enlarged emotions in some cathartic symbiosis with the actors on screen. If you don't, that's normally the sign of poor craftsmanship on the part of the director or actor, and you walk away disappointed for having wasted your time on a bad movie.

So what do you say about a movie that deliberately keeps you at a distance? That shuts you out, both emotionally and intellectually? Hou Hsiao-hsien's films use this approach intentionally, and while I don't know enough about the director to understand whether he does this as part of a formulated aesthetic plan or merely out of personal bias, I can say it makes for a challenging viewing experience. How much viewers get out of this experience depends on a number of factors. His approach worked well, I thought, in Flowers of Shanghai, because the subject matter itself was so strong that adding a layer of objective distance actually sharpened the focus. In Millennium Mambo, on the other hand, there's very little substance to begin with.

The story is essentially a chamberpiece revolving around a young woman and two men in her life. Scenes alternate in seemingly random fashion between brief intermezzos in various nightclubs, and petty squabbles and daily routines in their apartment at home. The central character, Vicky (Shu Qi), is a directionless young woman caught in a possessive, controlling relationship with an equally lost young man called Hao Hao (Tuan Chun-Hao). They fight, they argue, they boil some noodles, they use the bathroom, they smoke and drink. That's about it. Nothing else happens. No detectable plot or story arch forms out of these little slices of life. The scenes remain vignettes, signifying nothing in particular, and acted in a restrained, almost improvised style. Eventually, Vicky does leave Hao Hao and ends up shacking at a friend's place (Jack Tao), who's a triad. Again, none of this rises to the levels of actual story-telling. Nothing but little vignettes, including two unexplained trips to Japan that seem to have been included only because Hou Hsiao-hsien wanted to show the snow in Hokkaido as a visual metaphor for -- well, I don't know what for, but it does sure look pretty...

The camera basically stays mounted on a tripod throughout the film, and restricts itself to panning left or right, with an occasional zoom. No jerky handheld weaving and bobbing, no distorting filters and lenses (take that, Chistopher Doyle!), remaining a neutral observer for the most part. It does manage to create some interesting imagery, primarily through color composition and though playing with focus.

The acting is unobtrusive and restrained, in line with the overall aesthetic approach of the film. And it's also the one saving grace the film has. If it weren't for Shu Qi, there'd be little to recommend in this movie. She does hold the film together with a strong performance that shows how good an actress she has become these last few years, and how much her range has broadened, displaying subtle yet intense and authentic expressions that are light years removed from the bimbo roles she has been confined to so often in HK. Shu Qi acts as the film's narrator, referring in the sparse voiceovers to herself in the third person and in the past tense, again keeping the audience at a distance. I still have no clue what Hou Hsiao-hsien was trying to get at here - if he was zooming in on the floating, directionless, hedonistic and sad perspective of underprivileged young adults in Taipei, then he did so in the most superficial way. The movie's narrator keeps referring to the millennium, so perhaps the film does indeed try to evoke some sort of fin de siecle atmosphere of a generation lost somewhere between rave parties and unemployment, but the movie captures none of the passion or spontaneity of being young, and does not go far enough in illustrating the feeling of hopelessness and being caught in something you cannot escape from. The film's events remain far too inconsequential for that. So I still don't know if Vicky is meant to signify anything other than allowing the director to shed the stiff period setting of his previous film and indulge in some more cool-looking visuals.

If you fell asleep watching Flowers of Shanghai, if you thought WKW's Fallen Angels was pretentious crap, if you ever posted a message on the Internet asking for recommendations concerning Shu Qi's nudie flicks, and if the last three movies you truly enjoyed were either directed by Andrew Lau or produced by Wong Jing, then stay a mile away from this film. For everyone else, I'd say watch it and decide for yourself. I don't know if I liked it, but I did spend time afterwards thinking about it quite a bit, so to that extent the movie did engage me after all, I guess...