Saturday, July 11, 2009

Millennium Mambo

The Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1) seems determined to realize on film Nietzsche's famous aphorism, "If thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into thee." The three films of his that I have seen, Millennium Mambo (2001), Cafe Lumiere (2003), and Three Times (2005), are fascinated, but not fascinating, contemplations of the lives of beautiful nullities. It may be Hou's point that contemporary society provides no opportunities for the cultivation of an inner life, which would certainly account for its conspicuous absence from his films. Or he may simply have chosen his characters for photogenic qualities, which accounts for Shu Qi's appearance at the center of two of the films. Or else Hou is only interested in the formal aspects of filmmaking, regardless of his subjects. In any case, his work has caught quite alot of international attention, along with that of his more interesting countryman, Tsai Ming-Liang.

Millennium Mambo is the story of Vicky, a pretty bar hostess, played with graceful brainlessness by Shu Qi. But the film's ancillary characters, the boyfriend Hao-hao (Chun-hao Tuan), and a mafioso named Jack (Jack Kao). Not to mention Takeuchi Jun and Takeuchi Ko, half-Japanese brothers who take Vicky with them to Hokkaido in February, played by - you guessed right - Takeuchi Jun and Takeuchi Ko. Much is made of the customary moronic behavior in bars, the drunken brawls, the wretched sexual fumbling, and the aggressive, awful music. There is also some care paid in observing the proper way of smoking crack cocaine.

Chu Tien-wen wrote the script, and also co-produced the film. But much of the action and dialogue is apparently improvised. A narrator, who may be none other than Shu Qi, is used to distance the film from the present - our present, that is, since the narrator is speaking from the year 2011: "This happened ten years ago in the year 2001. The world was greeting the 21st century and celebrating the new millennium." Other than a New Year's party at the beginning of the film,(2) this is the one and only reference, directly or indirectly, to the millennium. The narrator tells us of something that happened between Vicky and Hao-hao or Vicky and Jack, and moments later we watch it happen. Tony Rayns translated it all with noteworthy care. It isn't every day that a subtitlist is mentioned in a film's credits. But Rayns is also one of Hou's biggest fans in the West.

The cinematography, by Mark Lee Ping-bing, a.k.a., Pin Bing Lee, is superb. So strange and yet so familiar, he gives the backstreets of Taipei and the snowy town of Yabari, Hokkaido, a fetching beauty. The last shot of the film shows us a snowbound, nocturnal Yabari, with squabbling ravens standing out against the piles of snow. Having visited Hokkaido in January and February 1994, and having lived for awhile in a quite similar landscape of snow and ravens, I couldn't complain when Hou held the shot a few beats longer than necessary as a quiet farewell to Vicky's otherwise frenetic life.

Hou's presence in all this is difficult to detect. Such discretion is usually an indication of the delicacy of the subject - where the slightest intrusion on the material would bruise it. Then again, Hou's infatuation with Shu Qi would also explain how doggedly his camera follows her around. But viewers looking for a point to the expense of one hour and forty-five minutes of their lives (and that's the edited version) will have to look much closer at Millennium Mambo than I was prepared to do.

We see Vicky drinking (too much), Vicky passing out, Vicky throwing up (although we aren't treated to an actual shot of Shu Qi vomiting), etc. I'm not sure how we're supposed to avoid the conclusion that Vicky is a hopeless mess. She goes to Tokyo at Jack's invitation, but Jack never turns up. So Vicky simply hangs around Jack's room in Shinjuku. The narrator points out once again at the end of the film that these events "took place in 2001". The only reason the script needed the narrator speaking to us from the future was to perhaps surprise us with the suggestion that Vicky would still be alive by then. While surprising, the suggestion doesn't bode well for 2011.

(1) Apparently the same practical jokers who transliterate Irish into the Roman alphabet, wherein the name O'Faolain is pronounced Oh-Fay-Lawn, are also responsible for the transliteration of Chinese names.
(2) A magician at the party sets off a noisemaker that produces a pathetically weak pop. He says he got it in China, "a great thing, with not much inside".

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