director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
writer: Chu Tien-wen
cinematography: Mark Lee
editor: Liao Ching-song
design: Hwarng Wern-ying
music: Lim Giong ; Yoshihiro Hanno
producers: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Eric Heumann, Hwarng Wern-ying, Gilles Ciment
production co.: 3H Productions / sinomovie.com
Hsu Chi (Shu Qi) ... Vicky
Jack Gao ... Jack
Tuan Chun-hao ... Hao-hao
Niu Chengze ... Doze
official website: www.sinomovie.com/mambo
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer at the Toronto International Film Festival, September, 2001.
What is it about Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millenium Mambo that has provoked many of the most devoted Hou-ites to greet it with scepticism, if not outright disappointment? Although it displays clear ruptures with Hou's previous methods of filmmaking, there are also continuities that firmly anchor the film in his formidable body of work, perhaps the most impressive of any filmmaker now working today. Mambo is an urban youth film, set in the bars, clubs, and dingy apartments of contemporary Taipei. Vicky (played by the gifted young Shu Qi, in her finest performance to date), stuck in an empty relationship with a morose and drug-addicted boyfriend Hao-hao (the morose and wooden Tuan Chun-hao), does drugs, goes dancing, and drifts between clubs. She meets Jack (Jack Gao, as charismatic as usual, but calmer and warmer here), an older, gentle gangster who offers her a measure of protection, then draws her to Japan, towards an uncertain future. Hou's last urban youth picture, Daughter of the Nile/Niluohe nüer (1987), also met with a lack of critical enthusiasm. Perhaps certain viewers need a certain kind of Hou, the master craftsman who invents a poetics of history for Taiwan and China, set in a finely detailed past that serves, for them, as a fertile ground for a nostalgia of lost place and time.
Contemporary Hou is disorienting, experimental, jarring. Unprecedented for him, most of Mambo is shot in shallow focus and medium close-up, with a roaming, exploratory camera always in motion. A Hou who directs the viewer's eye, too, is something new: we're used to slowly, patiently exploring the spaces he lays out for us, to exercising a certain autonomy as we read meaning into his films. Hou controls our eyes in Mambo and shows us what he himself seems to be in the process of discovering, in something like real time. But watch without preconceptions and let yourself fall into the rhythms of the film: the dance music of his Taipei slackers defines the beat of its shots, the drift of its camera, the endless loops within loops of its spiralling chronology. All sandwiched between two of Hou's most rhapsodically beautiful sequences: Vicky's slow motion neon-lit dance that opens the film, and the play of snow-capped images of old film posters that lyrically closes it.
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