By Cassandra Goh
Directed by the grandmaster of Taiwanese cinema, Hou Hsiao-hsien (who was also behind Flowers of Shanghai and The Puppetmaster), Millennium Mambo (千禧曼波, 2001) filmed in Taipei, won the Technical Grand Prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. It is marked as the first of a series of films, which Hou decides to produce about life in Taipei. The story is being narrated in hindsight, in which the ending of the film is the present, and it beginning in the new millennium.
Millenium Mambo explores the rebellious nature of youths as the character, Vicky, played by Shu Qi develops a relationship with both Hao Hao and Jack. The film reflects the mindset of youths back then and since the film was set in 2000. A year full of ambiguity and doubts, but it also signifies a fresh start for the citizens in Hong Kong.
“If Millennium Mambo is the only chance to see Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work at a movie theatre, you’d better take it.” – Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe.
The main outline of the film shows Vicky drifting between moments, parties and most distinctively, men. The story unfolds by portraying an out of focus shot of young Vicky in 2001 sauntering down a neon-lit tunnel while smoking, narrated by an older Vickey in 2010. With a considerably upbeat music, it suggests one being carefree. However, as she turns around with an uptight face, looking around as if there is someone following her – ties in with the seemingly endless tunnel she is walking through – suggests the inability to get away from what’s tying her down. Accompanied by the use of voice-over saying, “but he always tracked her down”, it enhances ambiguity in the future and the inability to progress. Accompanied by flickering lightings and shadowing, it further creates a sense of uncertainty and tension to the story. Through this scene, the camera pans and follows Vicky in slow motion, adding on to the feel of one hallucinating – perhaps, reiterating ambiguity. The use of voiceover reveals plot information before events are depicted, acting as a form of a dramatization.
The film is mostly shot in close-up of characters, be it whether they are alone or as a group. Most scenes shot at the home, where Hao-Hao – Vicky’s long-term abusive lover – checks her belongings, sniffs her etc., are usually unstable. The camera movements seem to be a reflection of the unhappiness and instability of their relationship, often resulting in quarrels and fights. Thus, there is the need of a jerky camera movement to enhance the imbalance and “craziness” happening.
This is the introduction of a form of mise en scène where the camerawork and the setting of scenes play a part in portraying different subliminal messages. For instance, visuals are frequently jerky and dizzying in scenes in the club enhances the complexity and ‘noise’ in a club. Additionally, shots are usually in long takes, accompanied by vivid lightings that correctly portraying the mood of its setting – such example is the use of fluorescent lighting in club scenes – in which significantly capture the essence of the film.
Hou makes sure that his audiences relate to the film – he does that through pacing his film properly and he ensures that through the meticulous set up for the mise-en-scene of the film. The relationships between the characters were paced well through the setting of scenes and the framing of the scene.
In this film, there is a fine line between the voiceover narration and the ongoing actions that creates a form of unidentified tension. This can be considered a reflection of a youth’s life where too many things are going on at the same time that it is becoming too overpowering for one to handle. The film consists of numerous jump cuts and repetition where it moves from scenes to scenes that are considerably unrelated and prolonged period of focus on certain scenes. For instance, the scene where the cops arrived at their home with a search warrants. The cop continuously repeated his actions and words to both Vicky and Hao-Hao. Unexpectedly, this scene was totally mundane and there was not a sign of it being suspenseful or tension. It portrays the image of one going about in circles repeatedly and there is nothing new to hope for.
“Looking at the youthful friends around me, I find that their cycle and rhythm of ‘birth, age, illness and death’ are moving several times faster than those of my generation.” – Hou about his sexy and transfixing Millennium Mambo.
In conclusion, Millennium Mambo builds on the richness of figurative images and dense mise en scène in portraying fractional messaging. Most importantly, it is a reflection of youth’s wayward days – often shifting from themes to themes, signifying the superficial and shortsightedness of youth culture. A good film, definitely.
List of References:
1. Cinematrics. Lab: Hou (Across Decades). [Online] Available on: http://www.cinemetrics.lv/lab.php?ID=21 [Accessed on 24 June]
2. Film Threat, 2004. Millennium Mambo. [Online] Available on: http://www.filmthreat.com/reviews/5271/ [Accessed on 24 June]
3. Slant Magazine, 2003. Millennium Mambo. [Online] Available on: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/millennium-mambo/843 [Accessed on 24 June]
4. Johnson, G. 2013. FILM CLIPS / Also opening today. [online] Available at: http://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/FILM-CLIPS-Also-opening-today-2782430.php [Accessed: 8 Jul 2013].
* Cassandra Goh is a sleep deprived student trying very hard to survive in school. Aspiring to be a director/photographer. To know more: http://www.twitter.com/_kasandura