Mambo is an urban youth film, set in the bars, clubs, and dingy apartments of contemporary Taipei. Vicky is stuck in an empty relationship with a morose and drug-addicted boyfriend Hao-hao. His daily activities include doing drugs, dancing, and drifting between clubs. She meets Jack, an older, gentle gangster who offers her a measure of protection, then draws her to Japan, towards an uncertain future. Bathed in vibrant colors and supported by a chill-out electronic soundtrack, Millennium Mambo is, rather than a picture, an experience, which aims at brushing against the emotional state of its central character, to absorb her beauty and vacuity without interfering, like in some sort of naturalist painting.
I took much of the narration of Vicky, the central character, to be her own efforts of self-delusion as it quite often did not match what was transpiring on the screen. Millennium Mambo recalls the unease that crept over the world’s youth back at the turn of the last century. It isn’t manifested here in curdled fate, but in sex, drugs, video games, and violence. Vicky is seen not as a marginalised onlooker but as a young woman coming into bloom, learning by experience how to build her own identity.
Solid performances all ’round and brilliant cinematography make this a landmark film. The film is all about a loss of reference and people roaming about in search of the good life. Many of the backgrounds are hard, reflective surfaces that generate several scenes within a scene, allowing the director to present a theme in several ways at the same time. Yet for those cinematic souls willing to brave such challenges, they will find Millennium Mambo a breathtaking tour de force.
Millennium Mambo is easily one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s most challenging and intellectual works in an series of consistently challenging and intellectual films. Millennium Mambo is beyond lush in its visual presentation and Hou’s versatility with the camera has never been better utilized. 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.