Millennium Mambo [Qianxi Manbo] was the first Hsiao-shien Hou (Three Times) film I watched, though I must admit that back then I didn't have a clue who Hou was. But the film spoke to me in a way that few other films had before and it motivated me to broaden my interest beyond the borders of Japanese cinema. By now I've seen plenty of other Hou films, but Millennium Mambo remains one of my favorite Hou's to date.
Back then I picked up the Millennium Mambo DVD without knowing anything about the film. I was just getting interested in Asian live action cinema and as I had to depend on local releases my choices were extremely limited. I found Millennium Mambo in a promo bin and decided that it was worth a shot. I had no idea that it would introduce me to the world of Asian feature-length dramas, where cameras linger and characters remain silent for long periods of time. A love that still stands strong today.
What differentiates this film from other Hou's is the film's setting. When I think of Hou nowadays I see trains, greenery and rural Taiwanese families, Millennium Mambo is the exact opposite of that. Hou plunges into the nightlife of urban youth and surrounds himself with drugged up characters, fleeting relationships and pumping techno music. Most importantly though, he treats the setting with respect and doesn't try to force some fake film version upon the viewer, something which is actually quite unique when dealing with this particular scene.
Millennium Mambo follows the life of Vicky, a young girl living together with Hao-Hao, her boyfriend. While he's a decent enough guy, he's over-protective of Vicky and freaks out whenever he thinks she met up with another guy. Vicky has a hard time separating from Hao-Hao and ends up with Jack, the leader of a local criminal gang. Money comes easy, but Vicky soon finds out that money alone can't buy you happiness.
Hou has a very peculiar style, so even though he switches settings the film still carries his visual mark. Long takes, unobtrusive camera angles and dreamy camera movements help to uphold the belief that you're watching true people in their natural environment. Techno music in films is often coupled to frantic editing and manic camera work, so it's really nice to see something different here, especially when the result is this nice.
The soundtrack is pretty cool too. None of those "they would never play this shit in clubs" film-techno, but real, recognizable tracks that help a lot to establish the right atmosphere. The non-club music is a bit softer but contains some stunning tracks too, especially the theme song (Lim Giong - A Pure Person) which will be forever linked to the stunning opening scene of this film.
Hsiao-hsien Hou and Shu Qi have worked together quite a few times already, which is obvious if you pay attention to Qi's natural air during Hou's characteristic long takes. It takes some mutual trust between actor and director to just act natural on screen without much happening around you. Vicky takes front stage in Millennium Mambo, but Jack Kao and Chun-hao Tuan turn in some good performances too as Vicky's love interests.
Millennium Mambo doesn't rely on an actual story line to keep things interesting. Nothing much is resolved during the course of the film, instead it lives off its characters and the atmosphere coming from the setting. Couple that to the slow pacing and you know that this is a film that won't appeal to everyone, but if you're into slow-paced Asian dramas featuring (mostly) silent character there's a lot of pleasure to be found in Millennium Mambo. On top of that, film enthusiasts may recognize Yubari (Vicky's trip to Japan) as one of the coolest film fest locations of the world.
Through the years Millennium Mambo lost little of its initial charm, maybe because the whole club/techno scene isn't all that popular in cinema (unless it's featured in some really distorted, horribly moviefied way). Hou treats his subject with the proper respect, just as he grants his characters the right amount of credibility. The result is a mesmerizing look into the life of a young girl looking for her true identity. Definitely one of the better Hou films out there.