Millennium Mambo DVD Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)


One of the more acclaimed films of the past few years Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Millennium Mambo is a film I've been wanting to see for quite some time and now, thanks to it finally getting a domestic release via Palm Pictures, I've finally had my chance. Solid performances all 'round and brilliant cinematography make this a landmark film.

Millennium Mambo is a film that has been on my 'track down and watch' list for quite some time now so I was more than a little pleased when a copy appeared unbidden at my doorstep. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's acclaimed film is a beatiful piece of work filled with image after stunning image and functions equally well on both literal and metaphorical levels.

Shu Qi - if you know her at all it's probably as the rather attractive woman in The Transporter - stars as Vicky, a young Taiwanese woman trapped in an oppressive relationship with Hao-Hao. Hao-Hao is an aimless petty thief, a drugged up nobody whose only real emotion is an obsessive desire to retain full and complete control over Vicky. He made sure she didn't graduate high school so that she wouldn't get a job and leave him; he checks her phone records, her receipts; he follows her to work; he strips her down and checks her for any marks or scents that might suggest that she was with another man and, if she shows any resistance, he threatens violence. Vicky explains that she has left in the past but that he always manages to track her down and beg her to take him back and, for some reason, she always does. Things finally begin to change for her when she meets Jack, a mid-level gangster who takes a gentle interest in her and takes her in following one of her fights with Hao-Hao.

Shot by Lee Ping-Bing - best known for his work on In The Mood For Love - and starring the radiant Shu Qi the film has subtle glow to it. The opening tracking shot of Vicky walking in slow motion through a lit tunnel is just staggering and it sets a tone that carries through the entire film. Some realism is sacrificed in the name of visual style - Vicky and Hao-Hao live very well for a couple supposedly so poor that Vicky has to take a job as a 'hostess' to pay the rent - but that style is well worth the cost.

Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has an unorthodox approach to narrative in that there generally isn't very much. The entire film is delivered as a memory, presented by Vicky ten years later and is subject to all the subjective quirks and jumps in time and space that memory implies. Though Vicky supplies voice over from time to time it is generally used to mark jumps in time and to accent themes and repetitions within the film rather than to provide information. The point seems more to create a mood than to tell a story and on this count the film succeeds admirably well.

The relationship between Vicky and Hao-Hao is absolutely maddening. I was constantly muttering to myself trying to understand why she would stay with a man who she shows no affection for, who offers nothing in terms of support of any kind and who is generally more of a pathetic than threatening figure. I was prepared to write that whole aspect off as unrealistic until it occured to me that I know several people in bad relationships that function exactly this way. Maddening, yes, but also true to life.

While the film rings true to life it also functions admirably well as metaphor. Hsiao-Hsien very deliberately set the film at the turn of the millenium and makes that point in the opening sequence. This is a film about welcoming the new. Seen from that perspective Vicky becomes a potent image for any number of things, most obviously a hope for cultural change in Asia. She begins the film tied to an abusive and impotent past, moves on to be sheltered by raw power as embodied by the gangster Jack and finally transcends both to find a new land, learn a new language and begin to dream for herself.

Now three years old the film has finally been brought to local shores by the good people at Palm Pictures. Their DVD release features a solid transfer, a DTS track - a nice perk in all the clubbing scenes - quality English subtitles, and an extended interview with the director. In all it's a solid set, a good film well presented.

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