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Milennium Mambo
  Chinese: 千禧曼波
Shu Qi and Tuan Chun-Hao in Milennium Mambo
Year: 2001
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Cast: Shu Qi, Tuan Chun-Hao, Jack Kao,
Jun Takeuchi, Chen Yi-Hsuan, Doze Niu
The Skinny: Shu Qi's best performance to date highlights this remarkable work from New Wave master Hou Hsiao-Hsien. There's a lot of the director in here, but also a surprising change in style that brings him closer to Wong Kar-Wai. This isn't the easiest film to understand and/or appreciate, but that could be said for all of Hou's movies.
by LunaSea:

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 Hsiao-Hsien's latest offering, which has 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 Hou Hsiao-Hsien's.

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. (LunaSea 2002)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Universe Laser
Mandarin Language
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
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image courtesy of  Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen