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Wednesday, April 16, 2003

'Millennium Mambo' moves you -- to the exit

Millennium Mambo

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Mandarin
Currently showing

"Millennium Mambo" is a great title for a film, except for two things: One, we're a couple of years past the millennium; and two, there's not a hint of mambo in the film.

News photo
Tuan Chun-hao and Shu Qi in "Millennium Mambo"

Mambo suggests energy and passion, and there's barely a trace of either here. Millennium, meanwhile, suggests some sort of epochal significance, but this is a film that dares us to find meaning in its utter insignificance.

There have been films without plots and films without well-developed characters, but Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien pulls off the rare feat of giving us both kinds in one film. True, Hollywood action films do this all the time, but at least, sometimes, they can get by on pure kinetic energy. "Millennium Mambo," on the other hand, is static in the extreme. We wait a good one-hour plus for the film's heroine to dump the punk-ass boyfriend whom it took the rest of us about five minutes to cool to, and then the film takes another couple of reels to suggest some sort of minor change in this girl's life. Though moving from a tenuous relationship with a young coked-out chinpira to an older, calmer yakuza met in a topless bar may not seem like progress to some.

Former "sexy idol" Shu Qi plays the film's lead, a young restless clubber named Vicki, and while she shows no great improvement in her acting skills since films like "Sex & Zen," she's good at assuming an appropriately -- artistically -- blank expression while the camera makes us fall in love with every curve of her face, every parting of her lips.

Indeed, if "Millennium Mambo" has one selling point -- and it's one that works wonders in the promos and stills for the film -- it's the luscious, luminescent cinematography of Lee Ping-bing, whose recent work has shown him to be one of the most talented and unique directors of photography working in Asia. As he showed in Wong Kar-wai's "In The Mood For Love" and Tran Anh Hung's "Summer Solstice," nobody can make an actress look more gorgeous, or use light and filters to create more textured, alluring ambience on the screen.

But where those two aforementioned directors are masters of letting meaning seep into the masterfully evocative mood, Hou -- working on what must have been a threadbare "script" by Chu Tien-wen -- struggles to give the viewer any reason to endure 100-plus minutes of ennui; no matter how beautifully it is rendered, boredom is boredom.

The film is narrated by Vicki in the past tense, looking back on the romantic mismoves of her youth, presumably from an older, wiser perspective . . . though there's little in the film to convince us of this. We drop in on her life while she's living with Hao (Tuan Chun-hao), a guy whose idea of romance is to huddle in his darkened bedroom, surrounded by techno toys. When Vicki arrives home, he emerges from his drug-induced stupor long enough to wordlessly paw at her, placing singularly passionless kisses on her obviously less-than-thrilled face. Hao barely registers her feelings, though -- he only speaks to her to say, "Get undressed."

Romance that's gone well past its sell-by date? Obviously.

But while Hou shows us what an immature, useless lover Hao is -- more interested in his drugs and video games and cdjs than the living, breathing, needing companion sleeping next to him -- the film never manages to show us any of Hao's charm, which presumably made Vicki move in with him in the first place and then stick out the relationship. We see Hao get busted by the cops for stealing a watch from Vicki's parents' home, but his good points? Well, he's got trendy dyed blond hair.

There's a story here -- that first painful lesson that attraction doesn't necessarily equal love -- but Hou singularly fails to involve the viewer, remaining more fixated on artsy minimalism and perfectly noncommittal alienation (Something which is also plaguing young Japanese auteurs these days). Hou's favorite sort of shot involves absolutely nothing. Vicki passes through a doorway to go to the bathroom (offscreen). While she's off puking, we're treated to a looong framed shot of the doorway. Long enough to wonder, what's the freaking point? (Notice those discarded clothes on the chair. Genius!) Long enough to think about 100 better things you could be doing with your time than watching this sort of pseudo-profound art-wank. Slow, steady observation often rewards one with insight, but definitely not here; the focus remains frustratingly oblique.

This is the sort of film where, if someone answers a phone call, we get to endure it in real time, two or three minutes just watching someone holding a cell phone and saying "Mmm."

"Millennium Mambo" is so hopelessly, fatally art-damaged that -- and this is no exaggeration -- if you cut all the scenes of people doing nothing other than "meaningfully" dragging on cigarettes, you'd have a 40-minute short left. Sometimes a smoke is just a smoke, and I'd rather drag on my own cigarette, thank you, over a bar, in the company of someone with a better story to tell than the drudgery on offer here. And you know, in Tokyo, good bars and good stories aren't hard to find.

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