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If Cinephile were a title earned through examination, then having seen the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien would qualify for extra credit. Despite being a prolific darling of the festival circuit for over twenty years, the oeuvre of this remarkable Taiwanese director is nearly unknown by American viewers. Only four of Hou's fourteen films completed prior to Millennium Mambo have been released on DVD in North America, and three of those are now out of print.
American distributors consider Hou's films too difficult (read boring) for American audiences, and Millennium Mambo is no exception. It contains elements of drama, romance, action, comedy, and mystery, but not in the hyperbolic manner fashionable in Hollywood films. Under Hou's masterful direction, these elements are presented in such elliptical, obscure, understated and sly ways that would-be American distributors are left puzzled as to how to market it. No doubt this partially explains why two and a half years passed between the film's festival debut at Cannes and its limited theatrical release in the United States.
Millennium Mambo is most certainly not the schizophrenic mystery that one of its American theatrical trailer suggests. Rather, it is a finely-crafted showcase for the work of longtime Hou-collaborators, writer Chu T'ien-wen and cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bin (better known for his work on Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood For Love), and first-time collaborator Lim Giong, who perfectly scores the film with techno, trance and deep house tracks. Millennium Mambo rewards viewers who appreciate that the film's mechanics (direction, lighting, camera work, scene dressing and location, score, dialogue, acting, and editing) serve the mood of the film but are not slave to the storyline. Conversely, viewers who are inculcated to expect that every image on the screen and every sound on the audio track are there primarily to move the plot toward a tidy end will be exasperated, confused, or bored by this film.
I prefer not to dwell on the particulars of plot, but not because revealing them spoils the film -- they don't; rather, because the particulars are not really that important or interesting. Millennium Mambo is the story of Vicky (Shu Qi), a young woman living in Taipei in 2001, who breaks up with her layabout boyfriend Hao-hao (Tuan Chun-hao), quits her job, and follows middle-aged gangster Jack Kao (Jack Kao) to Japan, as remembered and narrated by Vicky ten years later.
Vicky's narration and the images they invoke are not to be completely trusted. At minimum, the narration shifts backwards and forwards in her story in a manner than only reveals itself as the story progresses. Beyond this though, whole portions of the story may either be fantasy or so out of temporal context as to be misleading as presented. For example, I don't believe that Vicky actually goes to Hokkaido, Japan before following Jack to Tokyo as the narrative suggests, but whether she does or not ultimately is inconsequential. These fantasies or temporal shifts are not mysteries that require us to grapple with them to understand or appreciate the film so much as they are reminders to careful viewers that we're observing the story from Vicky's perspective ten years after the events portrayed. We are not viewing objective truth.
Another clue that the plot is not terribly important to what Hou is after is that Vicky's story is actually much less interesting than Jack's, so if plot were key, Millennium Mambo would be Jack's story not Vicky's. Jack is a mid-level player in a Taiwanese crime-syndicate who, we may infer, is ordered to kill his closest subordinate, Doze (Doze Niu), for a transgression involving a fight and possibly a theft, the details of which we are not supplied. Rather than carry out the execution order, Jack calls in favors in an attempt to get the order rescinded, and flees to Japan to buy more time. Instead of revealing what happens to Jack at this point, I'll simply note that our understanding of events remains limited by what Vicky knows and chooses to share, but if you expect Jack's story to be neatly concluded at the end, you'll be in for a major disappointment, though you may find a degree of solace in the alternative ending provided as an extra feature.
Having disposed of the plot, we can turn to what makes this film so amazing: the mechanics of the filmmaking, specifically, the orchestration of the cinematography, music, dialogue and acting into a pitch-perfect mood piece depicting the memories of an early-middle-aged woman looking back on a pivotal period in her young-adult life. The filmmaking techniques are employed in a rather formalized manner that replaces the narrative as the overarching superstructure of the film.
Cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bin rigorously employs two camera techniques. Inside dwellings, he allows the camera to pan, tilt, and zoom, but all shots are from a single fixed, and unchanging static location within the dwelling. The camera is in exactly the same position in every scene in Hao-Hao and Vicky's apartment, Jack's apartment, and the Shinjuku hotel room. If a character leaves the area within the space visible to the camera, we the viewers cannot follow. Everywhere else, Ping-bin relies on various hand-hand and stedicam techniques including the use of slow motion camera in scenes depicting movement from one location to another. A final indicator of the dichotomy in camera styles is that the static camera used in dwellings anticipates the characters' actions, but the hand-held cams merely react to the characters' actions. The static camera has foreknowledge and the hand-held cam does not.
Complementary rules preserving the dichotomy between dwellings and the outside world also apply to the use of music. There is no music within dwellings unless it is provided by a source located within the setting: most often, Hao-hao's turntable system. Everywhere else, a persistent soundtrack prevails.
The dialogue and acting also compliment the sense of fragmentary memory created by the cinematography and soundtrack by being somewhat unrealistic. For example, the physical actions of Hao-hao are often bigger than life. Thus, I doubt that the methodical way he smells Vicky from head to groin when she comes home to determine if she's been with another man and the stage-like quality of his ineffectual shoving matches with Doze are meant to be taken as objective depictions of his behavior but rather as exaggerated memories of our narrator. In contrast to the expansion of certain physical elements to larger than life proportions, the substance of much of the dialogue has been reduced to something less than lifelike. The content of the verbal fights between Hao-hao and Vicky reflected in the voiceover narration and the accusations and responses we see and hear are not fully fleshed out, realistic interactions. They are merely shadows and summarizing cliches punctuated with a few painfully specific statements that have stuck with our narrator even years later. Finally, the only audio element independent of location is Vicky's voiceover which may bridge scenes regardless of distinctions based on location or time further reinforcing the point that what we are seeing is Vicky's subjective memories not objective truth.
The film is presented anamorphically in a ratio of 1.78:1 which slightly crops the 1.85:1 original aspect ratio, but does not meaningfully detract from the image composition. Softness in the image is partially attributable to choices made by Hao and Ping-bin, but also partially due to problems with the PAL-to-NTSC transfer. The optional English language subtitles are appropriately sized, placed and paced.
The Mandarin language audio track is presented in flawless 5.1 DTS, 5.1 DD, or 2.0 Stereo.
There are three notable extras. The first is a nine-minute Interview with the Director in which Hou Hsiao-hsien discusses his methodology, the actors, setting and music. There's nothing here especially insightful, but I would recommend viewing this segment as an introduction to the film.
The second notable extra, which is entitled Extended Scene (Vicky in Japan), but is actually an alternative ending is the most interesting. The alternative ending concludes in much the same place for Vicky as the theatrical ending does, but it removes one ambiguity in the storyline completely and partially resolves two others. That Hou chose not to use it further proves his desire to maintain the opacity of the narrative.
The final notable extra consists of two American theatrical trailers for Millennium Mambo. The first is fairly faithful to the storyline (read, vague). The second is a complete reworking of the plot to depict this film as some nonlinear, schizophrenic mystery completely unlike Hao's actual film. Naturally, it's utterly fascinating for this very reason.
Beyond this there are the usual suspects of throwaway extras typical on Palm Picture DVDs: weblinks, filmographies, and previews for other DVDs.
Few films so masterfully evoke a mood of melancholia through the mechanics of storytelling itself. If you open yourself to it, Millennium Mambo can leave you feeling devastated and raw, and simultaneously stunned that such essential work still is being done in relative obscurity.