Millennium Mambo, released in 2001 and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first to be theatrically distributed in the US, is his first one set entirely (well, almost) in the contemporary world since Daughter of the Nile, and like that film it tends to be passed over in favor of more ostensibly serious works (which also, perhaps not coincidentally, have male protagonists). A chronicle of a young woman in a bad relationship struggling to get by in the trancelike neon club haze of Taipei, the film is told in voiceover from ten years in the future, as Shu Qi’s Vicky looks back on her life in a tangled chronology of memories, impressions, dreams and failures. There doesn’t appear to be a definitive order of events, and how one chooses to place the film’s final scene in the timeline goes a long way toward determining if you see the film as ultimately hopeful or depressing.
Future Vicky tells us about her relationship with Hao-hao, a drug-using petty criminal who owns some expensive DJ equipment and has some severe personality disorders. Boorishly possessive of Vicky, he has a penchant for going through her purse and examining receipts or the length of her phone calls, going so far as to literally sniff around her hair, neck, legs for the smells of other men. She leaves him, they get back together and the cycle repeats. One day she meets Jack, a kindly older gangster (played by Jack Kao, a Hou favorite, here playing a very similar character to the one he played in Goodbye South, Goodbye) who takes her under his wing with a paternal mixture of respect and worry. Jack provides a safe haven for Vicky, but underworld complications force a move to Japan. Vicky follows him, as instructed, but once there, Jack is nowhere to be found and she’s left alone in Tokyo with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
This is indisputably the order of narrative events. There is some hopping around between the time spent with Hao-hao (delineated by the two different apartments they share) but it’s more or less told to us in a straightforward manner. The thing that confounds though is one section in the middle of the movie. Vicky at a bar meets a pair of brothers from Hokkaido. They invite her to visit their family’s inn in Yubari, home of a snowbound film festival. This meeting is followed by images of her time at their inn, an aged aunt making food, play in the snow that includes the only proper insert shot in the film, a cut to the impression Vicky has made of her face in a snow bank. After this magical interlude, we return to Taipei and Hao-hao and Jack. But we go back to Yubari at the film’s close for a walk along a snowy street lined with giant movie posters and billboards, a cinephilic utopia as the narration gives us the film’s enigmatic final lines (“It snowed a lot that winter in Yubari”).
The question is: when did Vicky go to Yubari? In the middle of the film, a brief respite of happiness before she is sucked back into the whirling vortex of bad decisions? Or at the end, does she, upon finding herself alone in Japan, recall the only Japanese people she knows and make her way to their icy home where she finds the freedom and joy and warmth that had been so fleeting in her old life? In this scenario, those earlier scenes with the aunt and the impression are flash-forwards, a reminder at her lowest point that this story is a memory and that things will, eventually, get better. I know which way I choose to interpret it, but I’m not sure there is only one correct solution.
The voiceover from the future is one of the many odd choices Hou will make that mark it as distinctly a “Hou film” as any of his more celebrated works. The three films he made from 1984–1986 are designated his Coming of Age Trilogy, though as has been discussed, The Boys from Fengkuei certainly belongs in that group as well (as could Daughter of the Nile, The Puppetmaster, Good Men Good Women, and maybe even Flowers of Shanghai, Flight of the Red Balloon, and Café Lumière. People are always coming of age in Hou Hsiao-hsien's movies). Those initial four 1984–1986 films are all based on the personal memories of Hou and his friends and collaborators, as is the Li Tien-lu biopic The Puppetmaster. And Goodbye South, Goodbye and Millennium Mambo are at least partly inspired by Hou’s friendships with collaborators like Jack Kao, Annie Shizuka Inoh, Lim Giong, and Shu Qi. In other words, pretty much every Hou movie is a movie about memory, specifically about our memories of the times that radically changed our lives and the way we see the world. By positioning Millennium Mambo as a memory film, Hou is explicitly connecting it to his previous work, especially to the one with which it would appear to have the least in common, The Puppetmaster.
These are the only two Hou films (if I remember correctly) to be narrated. And in both the narration is somewhat unreliable. Vicky recalls things out of order, making her story difficult to follow and perhaps even unsolvable. Li Tien-lu’s narration often doesn't match up with the events we see dramatized in the film (a side effect of the fact that Li told the stories differently when he was interviewed by Hou on-camera than he did at the script-planning stage of the production, narrative inconsistency being a common flaw of genius raconteurs). In both films we will have an event told to us in narration only to later see it dramatized on-screen and vice versa. The Puppetmaster is about a man, an artist, caught up in the swirl of history, a life beset by tragedies, often of his own making, who nonetheless carries on living, even long after the filmed portion of his life is over (the film ends in the 1940s). Vicky too is surrounded by chaos, as often as not of her own making, but she too will be a survivor.
Visually though, Millennium Mambo is more attuned to the film that immediately preceded it, Flowers of Shanghai. As with that film, Hou has set his camera adrift from the strict minimalism of his contemporaries, floating up and down, tilting and panning in a complex of movements that seem directionless but are in fact carefully measured to maximize the effects of his densely-packed staging. My favorite trick of mise-en-scène: the careful placement of a security system such that Hou is able to track Vicky walking down the hall to Jack’s apartment, through the door and into the living room in a single take, without having to move a camera through a wall or some other movie-magic slight-of-hand; he just slightly pans from the security monitor to the room proper. Added to this is a newly employed use of shallow focus, rendering the backgrounds or foregrounds of his spaces fuzzy, as if only dimly remembered. The harshly rectilinear compositions of his early films (recall the doorways within doorways of The Boys from Fengkuei or the use of Japanese-style screens in The Time to Live, The Time to Die) have given way to more ephemeral space dividers: the lamps that light rooms as they obscure their occupants in Flowers and the beaded curtains of Vicky’s apartment, shimmering crystals of little girls’ hearts delicately slicing her bedroom into a dozen pieces, offering us a glimpse yet refusing us access. While Flowers had one instance of forward movement, Millennium Mambo on a couple of occasions tracks into and out of space. Most famously in the film’s opening shot, perhaps the most indelible image of Hou’s career, of Vicky walking in slow motion along a covered walkway by the side of a highway, lit by green-blue fluorescence accompanied only by Future Vicky’s voiceover whisper and Lim Giong’s gorgeous theme song, "A Pure Person". There’s another, about midway through the film, that tracks backwards as Vicky rides in Jack’s car, standing up through the sunroof in a dream of flying that recalls the playful motorcycle ride at the heart of Goodbye South, Goodbye as well as similar moments in Wong Kar-wai’s films, specifically in Fallen Angels and Happy Together.
But the connections with Flowers of Shanghai don’t end there. Flowers’s distinct editing, every shot beginning with a fade-in and ending with a fade-out, gives the movie a uniquely opiatic rhythm, as if it is being witnessed by someone on the edge of consciousness, a film of glimpses only, what we see when we can manage to open our eyes for a little while. There are no such fades in Mambo, rather every cut is sharp, but no less drug-like. Hou uses match cuts to connect time and space, leaping years forward in time in the blink of an eye, mimicking the stream of a hyperactive consciousness, creating a temporal instability that makes the film feel less linear than it might actually be. Both films feature an incessant use of music, not unlike Hou’s very first romantic comedies, though of a much higher quality. The soundtrack of Flowers is hushed, as if overheard from an adjacent room somewhere else in the brothel, noodling, directionless, and apparently endless. The score of Mambo is pulsating, vibrant electronic music, deafening in the club scenes but still present away from them, as echoes of the dance halls that linger in the character’s minds long after they’ve returned home to their hangovers.
Like Flowers of Shanghai, the characters of Millennium Mambo find themselves trapped, and the film is largely about how they learn, or don’t learn, to escape their environments. The flower houses of 19th Century Shanghai are not so different from the discos of 21st Century Taipei, a connection reinforced in Hou’s next film with Shu Qi, 2005’s Three Times, a love story set in three different time periods, two of which closely resemble the worlds of Flowers and Mambo. Escape isn’t complicated, the trick is just learning how to move forward.