Judge Joel Pearce stuck with this drunken, abusive Chinese film long after all his friends thought he should.
"You know, I think we're from two different worlds. How could we ever get along with each other?"—Hao-Hao
Millennium Mambo is a fascinating and unique film. With little in the way of clarity or linearity, it's much more interested in creating a snapshot of a relationship than it is in telling a story. Unfortunately, as the end draws near, some more clear direction would have been greatly appreciated. Still, the film is full of powerful moments and gorgeous cinematography, as well as a deeply felt story of a nearly hopeless life.
Facts of the Case
Vicky (Shu Qi, The Transporter, So Close) is trapped in a horrible relationship with Hao-Hao (Tuan Chun-Hao). He is selfish, physically abusive, sexually dominant, and unreasonably jealous. For some reason that she can't explain, though, she finds herself returning to him over and over again. Eventually, she begins to spend more time with Jack (Jack Kao), a local gangster who seems to genuinely care about her.
The film is narrated from Vicky's perspective ten years after the events of these relationships have transpired, as a grouping of memories through this turbulent time in her life.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise I had while watching Millennium Mambo is the truly impressive performance from Shu Qi. After her truly dreadful role in The Transporter, I was more than a little worried that she wouldn't be able to carry such an emotionally charged film. She pulls it off, though, and makes what is a naturally dull film and transforms it into a powerful study of failed relationships. Vicky is an interesting narrator because she does not tell her story from a traditional standpoint. Instead, she refers to herself in third person, unsure of what her own story means and why she made the choices that she did. Like her, the audience must sift through the fragments of her life in order to understand her.
I think most of us know someone in a relationship like that of Vicky and Hao-Hao. He sorts through her phone bills to discover who she has been talking to. He doesn't work, and doesn't want her to work because she might become independent. He expects to have sexual access to her at any time that's convenient for him. He encouraged her to drop out of high school just before she graduated so that she would not go on to bigger and better things. He starts fights with other guys that pay attention to her in public, and starts fights with her if she goes against his will on things.
The way the scenes between the two of them are designed and shot perfectly. The cinematography is seamless, as director Hou Hsiao-Hsien utilizes slow hand-held camera work in order to make the audience feel like they are looking in on the troubled couple. There is often this pounding, repetitive techno music that pushes through the background, setting the viewer on edge. The timing is right too, with slow lulls of discomfort interspersed with violent outbursts of emotion. Tuan Chun-Hao's performance as Hao-Hao is just as good as her performance, and it is possible to see how he works. He is a selfish child, exploding at the slightest provocation, but he is also frightened of being left alone by Vicky, so he acts nicely at times. There are times that I feel almost as sorry for him as I do for her, but mostly I want her to get away from him before her whole life is ruined.
These scenes are familiar to anyone who has witnessed a relationship like this, which is probably most of us. Millennium Mambo explores why women stay in relationships like that, even when they can't vocalize it themselves. Vicky is scared to be alone, and she clings to how she remembers Hao-Hao when they first met. The solution—to walk away and never go back—seems so simple at first, but the film highlights continually how hopeless both of their lives are.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Then, in the second half, the focus of the film shifts, and doesn't work nearly as well. Her relationship with Jack is fascinating at first, because she has been so hurt by how she had been treated that she isn't able to operate in a normal relationship. Instead of working through things, though, she just spends a whole lot of time sitting around, drinking and smoking. It becomes tiresome, especially as the threat of gang violence turns up suddenly toward the end. This shift is a problem, because Millennium Mambo is about personal relationships, and Vicky's new start with Jack doesn't mean a whole lot if he isn't there.
Perhaps the ambiguity of the end is the best way to close off Millennium Mambo. Perhaps people get trapped in these kind of relationships and it takes hardship and tragedy and time alone to get over it. Escape is a difficult thing when someone has to leave everything behind and start over from scratch. I found the second part of the film unsatisfying, but I also think that it may be the only real direction that the film could have gone.
Unfortunately, the disc is less than stellar. The video transfer is decent. However, it has the softness that's so often present in foreign films and the colors are washed out. This overshadows the quality of the cinematography and framing. Overall, I would consider the picture acceptable when compared to other DVDs of foreign films. The sound transfer is more disappointing. It seems very pointless to include Dolby 5.1 and DTS tracks if you aren't going to use the surrounds at all. I don't just mean they are weakly utilized, but rather that they don't get used at any point in the film. Ever. An immersive surround track would have been great in many of the scenes, but one is not to be found in any of the three options. I suppose it's acceptable as a stereo track, but that's pretty disappointing when you get promised DTS.
The disc has several special features. The first is an extended scene of Vicky in Japan, which runs just under 15 minutes. It is an interesting addition, but was probably best left out of the film. Some beautiful shots, though. The other major feature is a ten-minute interview with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, which exhibits the same ambiguity that riddles the film. I am glad that he didn't go ahead and make it six hours long though. Beyond that, there are a few trailers and some filmographies.
Millennium Mambo is a tough sell. It isn't much fun to watch, and I found my interest in it flagging toward the end. Still, fans of dramas that aren't afraid to show relationships with genuine problems will want to check it out. It has top-rate performances and enough great cinematography to make it worth watching just for aesthetic reasons. Its emotional power is undeniable as well: moments from the film are still circling around my head, after several days and a number of other films.
Although I am not able to whole-heartedly embrace everything about Millennium Mambo, I find it not guilty and hope that Vicky will find peace and freedom in her future.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Extended Scene
Review content copyright © 2004 Joel Pearce; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.