In a healthy film culture, the opening of the new film by Hou Hsiao-hsien would have all the media coverage lavished on a CGI madhouse like Van Helsing. Instead, Millennium Mambo, finally making its way to these shores three years after it was finished, is getting a crumby, one-week token showing in San Francisco, with nary an advance report to alert more discerning arthouse dwellers. That's typical treatment of foreign filmmaking, but it carries extra sting when applied to Taiwanese master Hou -- one of the greatest living directors (to many, the greatest living director), his name evokes to cinephiles an aura of august, almost mysterious sublimity not dissimilar from whispers about "Murnau" or "Mizoguchi."
As he has done increasingly in his latest films (Good Men, Good Women; Flowers of Shanghai), Hou funnels a nation's spiritual awakening into the developing gaze of a woman. The heroine, Vicky (Shu Qi) is a lippy, skinny-kneed club-hopper barely into her twenties, introduced, via one of Hou's patented pre-credits stunners, skipping -- almost floating -- down a bluish arched corridor, the sequence's undercranked movements scored to the revving up of a techno beat. It is 2001, and her life basically consists of making the Taipei rave scene and ping-ponging between her paranoid slacker of a boyfriend (Tuan Chun-hao) and the older, low-level gangster (Jack Kao) she met while working at a "hostess bar." No 21st-century Holly Golightly despite a similarly myopic party-girl disposition, her existence is considerably less free than the incandescent opening stroll would suggest, the hangover lows far outweighing the ecstasy highs.
The paraphernalia of youthful disco-dwellers (mobiles, DJ turntables, drugs) seems at first eons away from Hou's early pastorals (The Time to Live and the Time to Die, Dust in the Wind), though the world depicted is every bit as hermetic and, ultimately, as stunting as the opium-soaked brothel of the director's previous masterpiece, Flowers of Shanghai. Cultural dislocation and identity crisis, directly linked to the fractured history of Taiwan, have always colored the aching malaise of his characters, and in Millennium Mambo their lack of connection (to cultural roots, to family, to a full sense of self) reaches its apex, outdoing even the wannabe hoods of Goodbye South, Goodbye. Vicky's complacency, her reductive pile of ephemeral pleasures, is matched by her young beau's, whose universe rarely stretches beyond getting high, playing video games and sniffing out evidence that she's been fucking around.
Yet Hou is far from dismissive or judgmental of his directionless muse -- on the contrary, the film takes its shape from Vicky's dolorous yet enlarging realization of the narrowness of her worldview. (She narrates the story from ten years' perspective, referring to herself in the third person, and the tone is not so much rancorous what-was-I-thinking as elegiac was-I-really-ever-that-innocent?) Cut off from Nature (an integral factor in Hou's films) and family (her mother, never seen, is mentioned once), she nevertheless is not incapable of reaching moments of self-awareness, even if she can't articulate them. In a brief sojourn in frosty Hokkaido, she grasps stirs of connection by visiting the 80-year-old grandmother of a casual Japanese date, looking at old movie posters and, in one breathtaking moment, leaving an imprint of her face in the snow -- back at her boyfriend's pad, she paces, mopes, throws pillows and sobs softly, unable to define her rootlessness yet emotionally flooded by it.
A thematic analysis of Millennium Mambo cannot help but give an incomplete feel for the film's impact, since Hou's work hinges on a borderline incomparable visual style. Working with cinematographer Pin Bing Lee (who also crafted wonders for Wong Kar Wai in In the Mood for Love), Hou encases his characters' lives in a myriad of phosphorescent light and bric-a-brac every bit as rigorously expressive as the glowing amber and opulent rooms entrapping courtesan and master alike of Flowers of Shanghai. Hou's exquisite camerawork, with camera movements framing and reframing characters within long, unbroken takes, achieves a beauty that, without ever flattening them with sterile formalism, elevates his subjects and narratives (and, in fact, the very concepts of time and space) into iridescent objects of contemplation. Nothing escapes his lenses -- more than analyze, the camera permeates, etherealizes, makes the poetic visual.
Despite such talented disciples as Ming-liang Tsai (What Time Is It There?) and Zhang Ke Jia (Unknown Pleasures), Hou remains an inimitable figure in the landscape of cinema. Yet I suspect the picture will be underrated even among his admirers simply because, to many of them, the psyche of a Taipei party girl will be inherently not as worthy a vessel for examining the spirit of Taiwan as, say, an 83-year-old puppetmaster. Nonsense. Art can emerge from the lost soul of a techno-bopping brat as much as from the Japanese occupation of the nation, and Millennium Mambo, difficult, alive, luminous, is a masterpiece. It is the first of Hou's films to receive theatrical exposure in American soil, though his latest, the Ozu tribute Café Lumiére, is already playing the festival circuit overseas. Where is it, distributors? Will I have to wait three years to see it, too?