I first saw Millennium Mambo on my birthday at MIFF in 2002. As an admirer of all Hou’s films, it was a screening I was tremendously excited about. A couple of hours later, I was confused and left wondering what had happened to Hou’s distinctive film style of yesteryear? My first impression was thus one of resistance. Somehow, Mambo hadn’t met my expectations. It was like opening a present and finding something I didn’t like but putting on a gracious smile nonetheless.
Subsequent viewings have eased my tension. It’s all a matter of doing away with expectations and surrending to the splendid differences. Mambo is an exceptionally cruisy film that establishes everything you need to know about its story in the first few minutes. The way it reveals drama is extremely unconventional, such that some people have remarked that it has none. In a way, that might be true. We’re not given much of a chance to involve ourselves in Vicky’s daily life. It’s never clear exactly when things are happening and character motivation and action is always obscure. Mambo offers us a glimpse of private lifestyles, a glimpse and nothing more. Perhaps this is Hou Hsiao-hsien in a voyeuristic mode of expression, a director making it very clear to us that we can’t expect to know everything just because we see and hear a few selected moments in a person’s life.
A really major deviation in the Hou aesthetic is his use of shallow-focus cinematography and liberal camera movement. Unlike large parts of his previous works, here the field of vision is more controlled and selective. If there’s an ‘atmosphere’ of focal and mobile density in the film, its soft but vivid colours, layers of receeding space, trance music score and often cluttered foregrounds add to that effect. As a beautiful object, the variables of its production aesthetics transcend even those contributing to the mystery of Shu Qi’s ravishing locks.
There’s nothing quite like Millennium Mambo and while numerous people are very pleased at that fact, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with its unique manner of presentation. Near the beginning, there is a sequence where a magician performs a few disappearing/reapparing coin tricks before our eyes. Like a similar scene with a deck of cards in Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, this seems to comment on the sense of wonder and intrigue lacking in films that make cinematic narration so straightforward and easy to comprehend.