Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films are meticulous, slow meditations on facets of Chinese life. His films methodically contemplate the temperament of individual moments, of time slowed down. They possess an almost formalist logic that calls to mind the work of Cézanne— Hsiao-hsien is as much artist as narrative filmmaker.
Goodbye, South, Goodbye resolves around a group of petty hustlers, mundane moneymaking schemes, and tedious familial dramas in a culturally famished modern Taipei. The Puppetmaster follows the life of a fascinating individual who, since childhood, has devoted his life to the art of puppeteering and the rigorous life of travel such a life entails. Flowers of Shanghai is set in a 19th-century brothel and explores the lives of the courtesans (flowers) and the gentlemen callers they love, rely upon, and often despise. The entire film is set in one room of the brothel but seems to encompass all of latter-half 19th century Chinese culture and class divisions.
Hsiao-hsien’s latest, Millennium Mambo, takes place in a surprisingly futuristic Taiwan, and explores the lives of a modern, techno-fueled, drugged-out youth generation. Hong Kong starlet Shu Qui plays the beautiful, ever-searching Vicki, who has a tumultuous relationship with her lazy, drug-addicted, petty criminal of a boyfriend, Hao-Hao. Mambo is Vicki’s whirlwind of a story as she makes sense of the lives around her. Ecstasy-fueled nights, travels abroad, drunken club nights, an affair with a mysterious gangster: these are all bumps along the road to Vicki’s enlightenment. Not only is the ravishing Shu Qui in every scene of the film but in practically every frame. When she isn’t in frame, a tension builds until she reenters.
Shooting in dark, intimate spaces, Hsiao-hsien is a master of interiors, and Millennium Mambo’s cinematography, filmed by Mark Lee Ping-bing (who also shot the luscious In The Mood For Love), is full of lush reds and oranges that ooze a sensuality to which the onscreen characters only aspire. Faces and body parts fill up the screen’s frames until not one iota of space left unused. Shot sequences are repeated again and again until the viewer begins to anticipate these movements, almost urging the narrative onward along with the filmmaker. One series of shots involves a video monitor that displays a security camera’s view outside the gangster/Vicki-savior Jack’s apartment door. After viewing the action outside the door on the monitor the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the room inside the apartment and slowly shifts to the door from the inside. Mambo’s imagery glides across the screen like poetry.
Properly capturing techno culture, the film possesses some of the most realistic club scenes since Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar— thumping, trance-like beats permeate throughout, seeping from the film’s very seams. One of Vicki and boyfriend Hao-Hao’s big fights occur while Hao-Hao is even spinning records on turntables in their apartment. Midway through the fight it becomes apparent that he has initiated the fight only after putting on a new record, and then he exits the argument, turning the music up, when it is time for him to begin another mix and change the track. Like a true DJ he is always aware of the music— relationship be damned.
And yet, the film is based upon reflection. Vicki is in her very early twenties in the year 2001 (when all the action onscreen takes place), and she reflects back on her life from the vantage point of 10 years later, in the year 2011 (when all of her voiceover is actually being spoken). The action onscreen can be characterized as scenic reenactments of the stories Vicki tells in voiceover, often earlier in the film and out of context. One comes to wonder how much is "true"— meaning what actually happened in her life— and how much is just the product of a narrator whose memory and spin we perhaps shouldn’t trust.
The director implies that today’s youth generation lives and possesses a consciousness that moves at a pace faster than that of the past. Twenty-four hour news cycles, techno music, video games serve up a sped-up, often-confused existence that Mambo sends racing across the screen in a cacophony of Hsiao-hsien-slowed imagery, complete with snow-capped mountains that put Sofia Coppola’s vistas in Lost in Translation to shame.