There was a lot of anticipation in Cannes this year for the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's competition entry, Millennium Mambo, both for its signalling a new film series about youths in modern Taipei, and also for featuring a new star, Shu Qi, mostly known for her Hong Kong pictures. Judging by the results, Millennium would have to be deemed a minor work in the oeuvre of one of the world's greatest filmmakers.
As a follow-up to the sublime The Flowers of Shanghai, the new film is just as visually impressive, but disappointing in its shallow and rambling story of a young woman torn between the love of two vastly different men. This picture will not help Hou's commercial stature in the U.S., where only few of his films have been shown (mostly in festivals), but it should satisfy the helmer's loyal fans in the international arthouse circuit.
The drug scene is just one element that links Millennium's contemporary saga with the historical costumer of Flowers of Shanghai. Set in the brothels of 19th century Shanghai, that 1998 drama disclosed the inner lives of its inhabitants through obsessive focus on the lavish trappings of a closed, amber-lit world. In Millennium, Taipei's nightclubs and techno bars have replaced the old milieux, and though discos are not as sealed from the outside world as brothels, they, too, isolate and alienate their disenchanted young denizens.
Hou has commented in other films about women's marginal position, though here his protagonist, Vicky (Qi), is less marginal than detached. The first sequence, which unfolds as a long, slow-motion tracking shot, depicts the beautiful Vicky walking with abandon, the epitome of a free, generous spirit–a flower briefly in bloom.
In voice-over, Vicky recalls how she left home in Keelung and came to Taipei with a classmate. They both landed jobs, and soon Vicky found herself attached to Hao-hao (Tuan Chun-hao), a blond-haired punk who sometimes works as a D.J. Since playing records is not cool enough for Hao-hao, he's usually unemployed and broke; he once ended up in jail for stealing his father's Rolex. Insanely jealous and possessive, Hao-hao routinely searches Vicky's purse for evidence of an illicit affair. Vicky tried to leave him, but kept coming back, as if he was a habit she couldn't break up. She set herself a deadline to leave Hao-hao when her saving account is used up.
To pay for the rent, the landlord gets Vicky a job as a hostess in a bar, where she meets Jack (Hou's regular, Jack Hao). Older and more mature than Hao-hao, Jack is generous, pragmatic, and undemanding; it's unclear if there's sex between them. When Vicky runs away after a bruising row with Hao-hao, Jack rents for her a place. But Jack has problems of his own: A small-time gangster, he gets involved in some shady business and disappears from the scene and Vicky's life.
The now middle-age Hou looks at young people from the outside, as if perplexed by their rapid cycle of birth, aging, and death, and by their rhythm of life is much faster than that of his generation. For Hou, Vicky, and youths of her generation, are flowers that start fading as soon as they bloom. Indeed, at its best, Millennium offers a portrait of a modern woman, with no identity of her own and largely dependent on men, seen at the exact moment when she blossoms and fades.
The text unfolds in flashbacks that dissect the breakup of the relationship, with most of the interactions confined to Vicky and Hao-hao's small apartment. The story gets a much needed outdoor injection, when Vicky takes a trip with two half-Japanese brothers to visit their home in Hokkaido. The town of Yubari is hosting a film festival, and its snow-covered streets, adorned with lights and classic movie posters, is like a magical wonderland, in sharp contrast to the claustrophobic feel of indoor drama.
The underdeveloped narrative by Hou's collaborator, Chu Tien-wen, is full of possibilities, but the filmmaker seems reluctant to follow any of them. Except for a vague nostalgic regret, not much is gained from looking back at youth in 2001 from the vantage point of 2011. Moreover, Vicky's third-person narration (“she came to Taipei…) adds a level of detachment to a story that's already too removed. That said, Qi, who appears in every scene, is spellbinding to behold, even though her character lacks shading or nuance. Her striking presence may signal the beginning of a major international career.
Millennium lacks the glow of Hou's autobiographical early work and the measured formalism and compositional perfection of his later one. Harsh critics will dismiss the film as all style and no content, with too many sequences staged as music-videos. But the surfaces, lusciously shot by Mark Lee, who also lensed Wong Karwai's In the Mood for Love, are not devoid of meaning. The disco partying scenes are exquisitely mounted in a tempo that conveys their superficial allure and basic emptiness.
Like most of Hou's films, Millennium captures the haunting nature of the ordinary, displaying the director's melancholy perspective in which life is defined as a series of losses, an accrual of broken ideals and irretrievable loves. Modern Taipei in Millennium is yet another site of despair, or City of Sadness, to borrow the title of Hou's 1989 saga, which characterizes his entire cinema.