Millennium Mambo is the first movie in director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 25-year career to be distributed theatrically in the U.S., and that’s reason alone to seek it out. It’s the story of Vicky, a modern young woman in Taipei with a little money in the bank and not much to do besides smoke, drink and hang out at clubs with her friends. She bounces between her controlling, on-again-off-again boyfriend Hao-hao and the older, possibly wiser Jack, with occasional detours to a snowy part of Japan. Each of these three locations has a gravitational pull on Vicky, sometimes defying all reason, and the movie artfully balances them and seems to weigh them for their worth, just as Vicky is doing the same.
Every frame of the movie pulses with color and light. One of Hou’s strengths, evident in all of his movies, is his masterful sense of space. He fully utilizes the three dimensions of his locations, but not by roving the hallways. His camera usually sits still, but he makes the audience aware of spaces beyond its reach so that his worlds feel observed rather than acted. People disappear through doorways, but they still exist. They don’t stand artificially in front of the camera. If they need to move into the kitchen to get something, they do, and Hou’s camera waits for their return. The spaces in Millennium Mambo are more cramped than usual, and the situations more urban and tense. He packs the frame with people and furniture, reflecting not only the characters’ physical locations, but their lives as well, bouncing off each other, unstable, in need of fresh air. The way the music both connects and contrasts the settings is often mesmerizing.
Millennium Mambo is narrated from the future. “This happened 10 years ago, in 2001,” says an oddly detached, strangely reflective female voice, presumably Vicky’s, even though she refers to herself in the third person. It’s as if she sees her younger self as someone else. On a trip to Japan, briefly escaping the techno beats of Taipei, Vicky strolls down an “avenue of film” and presses her face into a snow bank. The indentation that she leaves behind, like the faces on the movie posters hanging above her, is sure to melt, but she’s a woman beginning a search for permanence.
The characters in Millennium Mambo sometimes seem hollow, but Hou pays them such careful attention that when they begin to gravitate toward serenity, the film is quite moving. Hou has repeatedly told the story of his country through its individuals, and in Millennium Mambo he clearly hopes for a day when turbulent Taiwan will achieve some stability. A country and its history are reflected in its people, and few filmmakers capture them so well. We get far too few opportunities in the U.S. to see Hou’s gorgeous films on the big screen. If this one comes to your town, don’t pass it up.