Qi Shu in Qianxi mànbo (2001)

MILLENNIUM MAMBO (qianxi manbo)

(director: Hsiao-hsien Hou; screenwriter: T’ien-wen Chu; cinematographer: Mark Lee Ping-bing; editor: Ching-Song Liao; music: Yoshihiro Hanno/Giong Lim; cast: Qi Shu (Vicky), Jack Kao (Jack), Chun-hao Tuan (Hao-Hao), Yi-Hsuan Chen (Xuan), Jun Takeuchi (Jun), Chen-er Niu (Doze), Kao Kuo Guang (Godi); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: T’ien-wen Chu/Eric Heumann; Palm Pictures; 2001-Taiwan/France-in Mandarin with English subtitles)
“Not a great film, but it makes the best of its shallow narrative and concludes with an emotionally lyrical payoff.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Millennium Mambo was winner of the Grand Prix Technique at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Noted Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (“Flowers of Shanghai”/”Goodbye South, Goodbye”) lightweight urban drama is about young people who are losers. It chronicles the life of the attractive but ditsy Vicky (Qi Shu, Hong Kong superstar), a 16-year-old who quit high school and left her hometown of Keelung to move to Taipei and its fast nighttime lifestyle of drugs, all-night parties, techno soundtracks and nightclubs. After breaking up with hometown boy Xuan, who brought her to the big city, she hooks up with Hao (Chun-hao Tuan), a DJ-ing fanatic who prefers not to work for a living. Hao is pathological, possessive, controlling, and abusive, offering her an insane love. Her plan is to leave him when she saves up enough scratch. But when the abuse continues she hastens the split, but Hao tracks her down and talks her into coming back. Hao is the chilling fate she cannot escape in this lifetime. When the couple can’t make the rent payments for their cramped apartment, the landlord gets her a job as a bar hostess in one of the hot nightclubs. Hao spends the evenings at home playing techno music and getting high smoking speed with his idler friends, and because of her night job suspects his live-in girlfriend of being untrue to him. An older small-time gangster/businessman named Jack (Jack Kao) is there for her at the nightclub as a friend she can talk to, and lets her travel in his circle of friends. When Vicky has finally given up on Hao for good after their last quarrel where he ripped up all her clothes, she makes plans to move in with Jack. But Jack has a gangster situation he can’t handle and doesn’t show up in the Tokyo motel they were supposed to meet. This leaves Vicky stranded only with her cell phone and nerves of steel. The film’s unique feature has Vicky do a voice-over narration throughout to look back ten years earlier to the year 2001 when she was a teenager. As the narrator she’s perceived as a mature woman, a survivor who has found her identity despite aimlessly wandering through life.

This is a minor film in the great director’s opus, but it was nevertheless hypnotic. It caught the vacant attitude of its vibrant heroine and visually under Mark Lee Ping-bing’s moody photography it was always a feast to the eyes. Hsiao-hsien Hou takes a nonjudgmental look at a modern but sad city and a high-flying girl who goes from temper tantrums to a Buddhist’s inner serenity at the flick of a cigarette ash. The filmmaker captures the uncontrollable hedonistic climate that fosters alienation and brings out the inner demons that plague the youthful characters featured. What it says about them is not as important as how this film is so stunningly good-looking. Ping-bing marvelously made a smoky nightclub look like a vision from Dante’s Inferno by drenching the screen with shimmering shades of blue. Not a great film, but it makes the best of its shallow narrative and concludes with an emotionally lyrical payoff.


REVIEWED ON 8/25/2004 GRADE: B –