January 9, 2004
Millennium Mambo is a 2001 film-festival darling from noted Asian director Hsiao-hsien Hou. It tells the story of Vicky (former model Qi Shu), a woman torn between two men, Jack and Hou-hou. The latter is very jealous and impulsive by nature, making him an interesting foil for barfly Vicky. When she meets the more nurturing Jack, she is caught up in the age-old question of why some women find themselves torn between bad-boy desire and the love of a good man. She faces this while stumbling through a drug-and-alcohol haze; her life is presented as little more than an inescapable rave party. When she meets Jack, she has an instant connection with a man who is the polar opposite of her nightmare boyfriend, yet she constantly finds herself going back to the oppressive, bullying Hou-hou. The movie is told in a narrative fashion by an older, wiser, completely detached Vicky, as she relays the facts of her mistake-filled youth and unfolds details of how Jack turns out to be not quite as pristine as originally presented. It's classic Hsiao-hisen You, straight from the mold of his previous work.
Long a favorite at the Cannes Film Festival, HHH won a Jury Prize for his direction on Hsimeng Jensheng in 1993, and received nominations for their top award, the Golden Palm, five times in the last eight years. Included among these previous nods are Haonan haonu (Good Men, Good Women), the concluding film in his trilogy about the modern history of Taiwan; Nanguo zaijan, nanguo (Goodbye South, Goodbye), a film that has been lavishly praised for its unusual incorporation of sound effects and music in amplifying the personalities of young thugs; and Hai shang hua (Flowers of Shanghai), the film which finally earned him a best director award from the Asia-Pacific Film Festival.
Considered the founder of the Taiwanese Nouvelle Vague cinema, HHH has proven himself to be an eclectic director with a subtle yet poignant understanding of his heritage and a willingness to show some of the oppressive portions of its history in order to better represent the stifling natural conflicts his protagonists must battle, yet he does so in a bitter, almost above-it-all manner as he harshly lashes out at the gangsta subculture pervasive in youth culture throughout history, not just in the current world. He has also shown a preference for making his central characters what I will politely describe as less intelligent than most and quite aimless in nature. In short, his leads are as often as not dullards trapped in cycles they cannot break.
That trend continues with Millennium Mambo, a film that has all of the hallmarks of the director's most lauded work, such as the long tracking shots and snail-paced narrative which some of his more outspoken critics claim is his way of actively seeking to alienate a certain section of viewers. Several film-festival reviews make mention of how flimsy the actual story is, especially when compared to the overwhelming theme of music, sex and drugs being the driving forces in Vicky's life. As with Nanguo zaijan, nanguo, the story is much less a focus than the style behind it. Obviously, this choice of style-over-substance has proven controversial. The film has been a finalist for grand prize selections at Cannes, Chicago, Flanders International and the European Film Awards, yet it has had to settle for the silver medal at each. (David Mumpower/BOP).