beautiful girl dancing her way through a neon lit overpass,
almost like she's floating in mid air, free of any thought
and responsibility awaits her future, smiling at the camera.
This is the opening image of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's latest offering,
which has generated a lot of skepticism, mostly because
of Hou's sudden change of subject.
Hou's fans used to his poetic,
visually arresting dramas depicting Taiwan's rural life
might feel disappointed by Milennium Mambo. This
is the first of six films (to be realized in the next ten
years) that deals with Taiwan's present youth, and is devoid
of the long pans, evocative images and detached shooting
style that have typified Hou's work. It's not a complete
U-turn in filmmaking for the taiwanese master, because some
of his touches are still present, but this film feels much
closer to Wong Kar-Wai's style of filmmaking than Hou Hsiao-Hsien's.
Vicky (Shu Qi in her best
performance to date) just moved from Keelung to Taipei,
and is trying to find her identity and her place in the
world. All she has is 500,000 NT$ to spend and her techno-obsessed
boyfriend Hao Hao (Tuan Chun-Hao), who keeps checking her
every move, even her phone card. She, like many others in
the same situation, is looking for something to hold onto,
something stable, but that's hardly the case in today's
world. Her days consist of clubbing, taking drugs and fighting
with Hao Hao over just about everything unless they're occasionally
taking a break from it and having sex (or Hao Hao is trying
to seduce her in an inept, yet funny way).
Jack (Jack Kao), a gentle gangster and bar owner who finally
gives Vicky something stable: a father figure. One could
argue that Jack's character represents Hou himself trying
to protect and watch over his "kids." Jack is
probably the most sympathetic figure in this film full of
matter-of-fact personalities without too much embellishing.
It's clear there's no sexual tension between the two, but
you get the feeling that Vicky is slowly getting back to
normal life with Jack, thing that couldn't happen with Hao
Hao. Jack wants to protect these young people, but somehow
he can't get involved too much in their life.
almost impossible to recreate the plot without writing at
length and ruining the fun of experiencing the film. This
is clearly not a film based on storytelling, but like the
films of Wong Kar-Wai it uses mood and images to present
a world so insecure and unstable, so multicultural that
it can't find its identity. For that reason, the film requires
at least a second viewing, not necessarily to get into the
characters, but more to try to understand what the director
is aiming for.
fact that the film is told as a memory, 10 years in the
past (Vicky's voice-overs are from the year 2010) helps
Hou to remain detached from his characters, because delving
deeper into the character's mind would mean losing the bigger
picture. Most of the characters live in a vacuum, refusing
to acknowledge any semblance of identity (they use western
names and are inundated by western culture in everything
they do), they have their own small world full of instability
but they do want to change. The problem is, change brings
tough choices, change bring responsibility, change brings
sacrifices, and they probably don't want to endure all that.
That is probably the reason why Hao Hao keeps coming back
to Vicky, and the relationship with Jack doesn't quite work
out like Vicky expected.
This is one of the most demanding
films of the last few years because it asks you to understand
the message but doesn't give you the tools to get into those
characters. The great visuals, the pumping techno music
and the atmosphere generate a mood that almost make you
forget the story. Hou's message might not be easy to grasp
at first. He uses a style that closely resembles the Wong
Kar-Wai of Chungking Express (emotional instability,
fear for the future, disconnection from the outside world,
a lack of human contact) and In The Mood For Love or Ashes of Time (emphasis on mood, images, music
and atmosphere over storytelling and involving characters).
Yet, this is clearly still a Hou film, with its detached
view of the world, slow moving cinematic style (although
there are more close-ups than usual and less long takes)
and great realism.
is able to show the lives of these young people in a powerful
way without resorting to cheap plot devices or overly manipulating
storytelling. This Hou film will take a while to get into,
but I'm positive it's an interesting new direction and one
that will generate very good films. (LunaSea 2002)