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Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo

千禧曼波 [Millenium Mambo]

千禧曼波 [Millenium Mambo]

千禧曼波 (Millennium Mambo), Taiwan 2001. Directed by 侯孝賢/Hou Hsiao-hsien, written by 朱天文/Chu T’ien-wen.

Bambi Theater 1, Row 2, Seat 7. Restored and digitized 4K version with German subs.

For more than two decades now, Millennium Mambo’s introductory scene has been a staple in cinematography workshops. The movie won a caboodle of prestigious awards—the movie itself and its director; its cinematography by 李屏賓/Mark Lee Ping-bing, who had shot Wong Kar-Wei’s In the Mood for Love the year before; its terrific house/techno score by 黃凱宇/Kai-Yu Huang and 林强/Giong Lim; and its sound design and sound effects by 杜笃之/Duuh-Chih Tu in particular. The actors, above all 舒淇/Shu Qi, are fantastic. And, as a special mention, the movie’s prop placement is incredibly good—a terrific example of what world narrative (as it’s called in game design, aka environmental storytelling) can do.

Despite all this, it took twenty-three years for the movie to arrive at German theaters, which might be a kind of record. But if you skim through German blurbs, you begin to wish it hadn’t arrived at all. Too many of them miss the point of the movie not only completely but by a continental margin, with galaxy-brain takes like »Die junge und attraktive Vicky hat die Qual der Wahl zwischen zwei Männern und kann sich einfach nicht entscheiden«—equivalent to a blurb for the movie Gravity that stated “The attractive Ryan is torn between staying on the ISS and returning to Earth and just can’t make up her mind.” Yes, it’s as asinine as that.

Now, the movie.

There’s a curious element that’s in need of getting used to. Many story beats are “preloaded” via voice-over from the protagonist that later appear as actual scenes. These corresponding scenes might follow immediately or much later, and they also don’t always correspond to their erstwhile abstracts in every detail. What’s more, the protagonist talks about herself in the third person. All in all, these VO narrations work neither as foreshadowing elements nor as reflections but a kind of doppelung. It’s hard to interpret, but it certainly feeds into the repetition and circularity that’s at the heart of this movie.

Most of the time, perfectly aligned with the movie’s general theme, there’s no plot, only story; no sense of direction, only drunkard’s walk movements; and no agency, only reaction. Mark Lee Ping-bing’s brilliant camera work perpetually borders on the claustrophobic, not only in the protagonist’s crammed apartment and the packed interiors of Taipei’s neon-riddled nightclubs but also outside. Rarely is there any breathing space, let alone vistas. The characters’ imagination—of possibilities, of opportunities, of change—is as restricted in distance as it is in time. Even the introductory scene, and another scene where the protagonist leans out of a car roof window during a ride, never deliver on their tropes, never make good on their promise of space and larger degrees of freedom.

Spoilery from here on. The ending is both difficult and baffling. There is one brief “intermission” around the midpoint where the protagonist actually does eat and is sober and among friendly, regular people in a particular setting, and that’s the setting she returns to at the end. On the one hand, she’s free now in various ways—from drugs, alcohol, and chain-smoking as well as from people who constantly determine the course of her life. But the location where this freedom can finally be achieved is a small town buried in ice and snow, plastered with vintage movie posters from an annual film festival that is its only attraction. Yet, it also projects and facilitates a great deal of coziness and lightheartedness and even playfulness, from cooking to snowball fights to pressing faces into the snow.

In this snow, however, the final take draws a line with a ghostly vista watched over by crows that demarcates the edge of the world and the end of the movie. Already, the movie and its protagonist are being turned into a cinematic memory, ever expressive but frozen in time, joining the movies and stars of yore who will look down from their stylized posters forever.

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