A story about getting lost in a dream, Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Millennium Mambo" opens with a vision of the sublime. With the camera trained on a woman walking in slow motion, a voice-over explains that once upon a time this dazzling creature was a slave to love. The woman tried to escape her lover, but she kept returning to the scene of her sadness "as if under a spell or hypnotized." She returned only to have her heart broken again and again. As we discover, she also came back to give us the gift of her story.
The woman on screen is called Vicky (Shu Qi) and, although it's never stated explicitly, this is her story. That story, which unfolds entirely in flashback, mainly involves Vicky's unhappy relationship with two men 10 years earlier just as the world was moving from the second millennium into the third. Then in her mid-20s, Vicky feebly tried to extricate herself from a long-term relationship with a boyfriend her own age, Hao-Hao (Tuan Chun-hao), even as she was entering a new romance with an older man named Jack (Kao Jack). Along the way with each man, there were fights, a little lovemaking and a lot of hanging out; mostly, though, in a story about the seductions and perils of memory, there were moments in time.
In "Millennium Mambo," men and women drift from moment to moment unmoored from the here and the now. Unlike the characters in director Hou's previous films -- including his masterpieces "The Puppetmaster" and "Flowers of Shanghai" -- Vicky and her friends don't have strong connections to specific places, to a home or a history. It's telling that her story goes back only as far as the startof her relationship with Hao-Hao as if she had been born the first time he saw her. Maybe she was. Once a bystander to her own life, Vicki floated in a narcissistic haze. She had burned as brightly as the colors that light up every scene -- the film pulses with hot purples, electric greens and violent reds -- and with equally useless beauty.
"Millennium Mambo" is the 15th film from Hou, a leader in Taiwan's cinematic new wave of the 1980s. Although widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers working today, with each new movie considered a major event (everywhere but here, that is), "Millennium Mambo" is the first of Hou's features to secure a U.S. release.
That pathetic fact partly speaks to the impoverished state of foreign-language distribution in this country, where French trifles command more attention than the greatest movies from Taiwan or China. There are all sorts of reasons for this type of cinematic prejudice, including the unpleasant reality that many of this country's cultural gatekeepers seem more comfortable when a filmmaker is named Jones or Smith rather than Chow or Kim.
Given the magnificence of Hou's previous films, I wish I loved "Millennium Mambo" more. There's wonderful promise in Hou's attempt to make a movie about the kind of woman who's usually part of the scenery, standing prettily off to the side while the action swirls around her. Yet perhaps because Vicky is that kind of disposable ornament, Hou never manages to turn this beautiful conceit into a woman. Yet as always with this filmmaker, the visual pleasures are enormous and often deeply touching. One of the most ravishing images in a film filled with ravishing images is of Vicky gently lowering her face into some freshly fallen snow. As she raises her head laughing, the camera lingers on the impression she's left behind. In the snow, we see the traces of a self already melting into a memory.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult language, drug use, some discreet sex
Released by Palm Pictures. Director Hou Hsiao-hsien. Writer Chu Tien-wen. Producer Hwarng Wern-ying. Cinematographer Lee Ping-bing. Production designer Hwarng Wern-ying. Costume designer Wang Kuan-I. Casting Chiou Pei-yi. In Mandarin and Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
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