“Looking at the youthful friends around me, I find that their cycle and rhythm of ‘birth, age, illness and death’ are moving several times faster than those of my generation,” says Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien about his sexy and transfixing Millennium Mambo, a departure (read: more techno music) of sorts for a filmmaker known for less youthful pictures like A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and The Flowers of Shanghai.
The film is an ethereal chronicle of a young woman, Vicki (Shu Qi), leading an unexamined life. She lives with her abusive disc jockey boyfriend, Hao-Hao (Tuan Chung-hao), and when she finally leaves him, she befriends a mobster, Jack (Kao Jack), who doesn’t bring her any closer to joy. Very little happens in Millennium Mambo because Hou’s subject is, again, stasis. The film begins at the end, with a noticeably free Vicki walking down a footbridge before disappearing into the shadows of a staircase below. The camera stops—or, more accurately, lets go.
Just as the momentum of Hou’s images seemingly summons Vicki toward transcendence, her elegiac voiceover (positioned 10 years in the future) suggests that she conquered the ennui and doping of her young life. Some of the most beautiful passages in the film evoke the paralysis of modern living and the promise of change: Vicki leaves an imprint of her face on the snow and an 80-year-old grandmother yearns for another 20 years (so she can see how much the world around her has changed). The second-person perspective of Vicki’s voiceover ravishingly intensifies Hou’s fixation with the disconnect between our past and present lives—that inexplicable, instantaneous moment in time when we leave our old self behind like a ghost.