In the iconic opening sequence of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo (千禧曼波, Qiānxī Mànbō), a young woman bounces enigmatically along a walkway, filled with joy and abandon and seemingly exultant in her freedom. Occasionally she glances back as if someone were actually filming her but then we start to wonder if this isn’t just her looking back at herself as she narrates her story in the third person, as if it happened to someone else because in a sense it did. “This happened 10 years ago,” she explains from the vantage point of 2011 looking back on the coming millennium and her own slow dance towards a new world.
Then again, as she admits Vicky (Shu Qi) always seems to be drawn back into the orbit of Hao (Tuan Chun-hao), her no good, abusive boyfriend who is so controlling that he deliberately prevented her from taking her high school exams out of fear that she’d “move on”. Circling around Vicky’s memories, Hou often cuts to Hao in exactly the same position as he was before while Vicky has indeed moved on if not always in the direction she might have chosen such as the abrupt transition to her naked behind as a dancer at a nightclub where she is forced to work because Hao refuses to earn a living. When we first see her arrive at their apartment, Hao is sitting in the dark and we don’t even notice him until he gets up after Vicky enters the bathroom. Where her bedroom is colourful and cosy, bathed in soft light and demonstrating her ability to find small comforts in an otherwise harsh existence, Hao’s space is gloomy and ominous in its austerity.
While Vicky tries to move into a more responsible adulthood, Hao extends Taipei clubland into their home frequently hanging out with friends while djing on the rig in his room. He takes drugs to keep his weight down to evade military service and gets into trouble with the law after pinching and pawning an expensive watch from his dad rather than trying to get job. He is the force which seems to keep Vicky trapped in a disappointing existence. By her own admission she finds herself returning to him as if she were in a kind a kind of trance, unable to escape though at times clearly despising him and perhaps herself too. Even Hao is fond of saying that they’re from different worlds, stuck on parallel orbits and otherwise incompatible. Even their apartment seems to be divided into night and day.
Yet it’s also Taipei clubland that offers Vicky an escape route through the community she finds surrounding her amid the pulsing beats of millennial techno. A kindhearted gangster, Jack (Jack Kao), comes to her aid though he is later brought low by the recklessness of youth as his naive underlings bring their world crashing down around them. Jack takes her in and protects her with paternal affection, eventually inviting her to go on the run with him in Japan but immediately disappearing, just like the snowman she later describes Hao to have been in a moment imprinted on her memory. She carries Jack’s phone around with her unable to let go of him while recalling the scent of his abandoned jacket as she tries to make a decision in a snowy Tokyo just as she’d sworn to herself she’d leave Hao when she ran through her savings.
Hou and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing shoot all of this through the breeziness memory, following emotional logic rather than the literal as Vicki narrates to us events which are at odds with those occurring on screen and zig zags through the story of her youth before arriving at what seems to be a genuine moment of warmth amid heavy snow, perhaps finally “moving on” from the dissatisfying past to a future of her own choosing. Then again, her fleeting recollections amount to a constructed narrative, the story of the girl on the walkway who finally reaches the other side and disappears into the night either progressing into the new millennium or remaining trapped in a thousand year mambo of memory reliving the key moments of her life in a gentle oscillation, “as if under a spell or hypnotised” , unable to escape from the dangerous allure of nostalgia.
Millennium Mambo is screening now at New York’s Metrograph and available to stream in the US via Metrograph at Home courtesy of Metrograph Pictures.
Trailer (English subtitles)