The later films of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien, including Millennium Mambo, appear to have garnered the director a reputation of being cinematically “difficult” (Wood, 2001).
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Released in 2001,Millennium Mambo represents the “15th film from Hou, a leader in Taiwan’s cinematic new wave of the 1980s. Although widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers working today, with each new movie considered a major event,” Millennium Mambo nonetheless was the first of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films to secure a North American release (Dargis, 2004: p. 2).
Hou Hsiao-hsien belongs to Taiwan’s “New Cinema” group, a collective of Taiwanese directors that emerged in the 1980s. The “New Cinema” movement collaborated on each other’s films, and enjoyed solid backing from film critics working in Taiwan at the time.
Taiwanese cinema was dominated by “escapist romances and propaganda films” at that time, thus the “New Cinema” collective broke from tradition and “used a realistic style to convey their socially concerned themes…and their films “recognized the fact that Taiwan was not synonymous with China” (Huang, 1999: no page).
Hou Hsiao Hsien’s work garners the most international recognition amongst the “New Cinema” directors. His subject matter remains almost exclusively grounded in the experience of living in Taiwan, which is in fact his experience, as Hou has spent the lion share of his life living and working in Taiwan (Huang, 1999: no page).
Huang (1999) also notes that “contrasted with the positive influences one can gain from country life in most of Hou’s films are the attractions of the city, with its opportunities for a living wage and concomitant confusion of an alien social structure, and its dissimilar types of human relationships,” which we see evidenced in Millennium Mambo (no page).
Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films remain under the cinematic radar, largely unknown and for the most part unavailable to North American and European cinephiles. This paper will make a case for the distinguishing form of filmmaking applied by Hou Hsiao-Hsien in Millennium Mambo, with a particular emphasis on the director’s dramatisation of discrete scenes and his use of long shots and master shots to simultaneously create mood while maintaining an emotional distance from his characters.
As a rule, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films tend to favour aestheticism and mood over narrative structure, largely as a result of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s “intransigent refusal to “help” the audience by making obvious points, spelling out meanings, telling us what to think of the characters, or carefully explaining their motivation” (Wood, 2001: p. 12).
Apt to rub critics the wrong way, this creative obstinacy of Hou’s can sometimes be read as self-aggrandisement, and results in unflattering criticism such as this dismissal by Jones (1999): “Hou joined the ever growing number of filmmakers who appear to have climbed too far out on the limb of aestheticism, showing no regard whatsoever for their paying customers” (Jones, 1999: no page).
In order to fully appreciate Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films, Wood (2001) argues that audiences must “first…unlearn the indoctrinations of contemporary Hollywood and become active observers rather than passive receptacles, noticing even the smallest details, pondering their significance, making thematic connections beyond those of narrative, reaching our own decisions rather than having them foisted on us” (Wood, 2001:p. 12).
Other critics view Hou Hsiao Hsien’s work as deeply personal. In her essay Looking for Nostalgia: Memory and National Identity in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s a Time to Live, a Time to Die, Wu (2003) holds that “Hou Hsiao Hsien consistently drew on his personal life experiences and those of his co-writers’ in the overall structure of the narratives, through which he represented the history of the increasingly industrialised and westernised Taiwan” (Wu, 2003: p.45).
Hou Hsiao Hsien often collaborators with the same writers and cinematographers, all of whom make a conscious attempt to “project…themselves into their films” (Wu, 2003: p. 46).
In Wu’s (2003) mind, Hou Hsiao Hsien and his screenwriters “offer the cinematic equivalent of historical representation, raising questions of identity on a symbolic level, in which they appeared to articulate themselves while simultaneously being articulated into history” (Wu, 2003: p. 46). As such, Hou Hsiao Hsien remain one of a handful of filmmakers concerned with “national soul searching, [and] reconstructing history as a function of reflecting the present” (Wu, 2003: p. 47).
Millennium Mambo constructs a loose narrative around main character Vicky’s experience as a hostess in a trendy Taiwanese bar and her relationships with two men: her abusive boyfriend, and an older gangster who befriends her. Kaicer (2001) called Millennium Mambo “an urban youth film, set in the bars, clubs, and dingy apartments of contemporary Taipei” (no page).
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The techno inspired soundtrack “dance music of his Taipei slackers defines the beat of its shots, the drift of its camera, the endless loops within loops of its spiralling chronology” (Kaicer, 2001: no page). For Sklar, (2002), Millennium Mambo represents Hou Hsiao Hsien’s “least compelling…narratives, but it’s reassuring to know that the film casts his remarkable artistry and moral seriousness at least another decade into the future” (Sklar, 2002: p.12).
The film’s critical welcome, according to Wood (2001), was mainly mixed. Jacobowitz (2005) raved that Millennium Mambo perfectly depicted “the cool edginess of the alienated youth” of Taiwan (p.65). Berry and Lu (2005) saw Millennium Mambo as a work of art that “pursues innovation into a future setting” (p. 7). Los Angeles Times film critic Manohola Dargis (2004) found that:
“Unlike the characters in director Hou Hsiao Hsien’s previous films – including his masterpieces “The Puppetmaster” and “Flowers of Shanghai” – Vicky and her friends don’t have strong connections to specific places, to a home or a history…[yet] as always with this filmmaker, the visual pleasures are enormous and often deeply touching.
One of the most ravishing images in a film filled with ravishing images is of Vicky gently lowering her face into some freshly fallen snow. As she raises her head laughing, the camera lingers on the impression she’s left behind. In the snow, we see the traces of a self already melting into a memory” (p. 3).
However, when the film premiered at the Cannes festival in 2001, Millennium Mambo garnered the dubious honour of being “the first of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s mature films to receive a less than enthusiastic reception” (Wood, 2001: p. 12). Millennium Mambo was “dismissed by critics in a perfunctory line or two with no attempt to relate it to Hou Hsiao Hsien’s previous work” (Wood, 2001: p. 12).
Like Hou Hsiao Hsien’s other works, Millennium Mambo is backward looking, and told from memory. Sklar (2002) remarks that in Millennium Mambo “Hou Hsiao Hsien returned to [the] curious aspect of his penchant for the past [in] that the film opens with a voice-over explaining that its events “happened ten years ago in the year 2001,” casting the present as history” (Sklar, 2002: p.12).
Though set in the recognizable present, Millennium Mambo continues Hou Hsiao Hsien’s tradition of looking to the past to offer commentary on the present. In Millennium Mambo, Sklar (2002) understand “Hou Hsiao Hsien’s strategy for taking on today’s chaotic, incoherent postmodern culture – as he makes it appear to be – involves viewing it as evanescent, as having already happened and, presumably, later been transformed into something else” (Sklar, 2002: p.12).
Culturevulture.net (2004) describes Hou Hsiao Hsien “as a member of the “master shot” school of filmmaking” (No page). In standard filmmaking, the master or establishing shot happens first and presents the key elements of any given scene. The filmmaker then repositions the camera in nearer proximity to the subjects held within the frame, be they actors or objects, culminating usually in a close-up.
When it comes time to edit, the filmmaker typically intercuts between the establishing shot and the medium and close shots to generate the intensity of the scene (Culturevulture.net, 2004: no page). Culturevulture.net (2004) highlights the fact that “Hou Hsiao Hsien almost never engages in this latter aspect of standard film technique. A movie composed mostly of long shots, especially extended takes as is usual for Hou Hsiao Hsien, tends to keep the audience emotionally distanced from the characters and the action.
As a result, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films are criticized as boring, and sometimes they are. But at his best, Hou Hsiao Hsien can provoke overwhelmingly intense emotions precisely because the viewer has worked to earn it. Hou Hsiao-Hsien films offer a generous store of images and feelings that lavishly reward time and patience” (No page).
Hou Hsiao Hsien’s shooting style and camera work in Millennium Mambo relays a similar technique, although according to Sea (2002), Millennium Mambo “is the first of six films…to be realized in the next ten years…that deals with Taiwan’s present youth, and is devoid of the long pans, evocative images and detached shooting style that have typified Hou Hsiao Hsien’s work” (No page).
Millennium Mambo contains a disconnected, emotionally frozen feeling, evoked mainly by the performances, but also by the way that the film is shot. An example of this occurs in the seduction scene (Millennium Mambo, 2001).
Vicky returns from her hostess job to find her boyfriend, Hao Hao, at home and in the mood for love (Millennium Mambo, 2001).. Hou Hsiao Hsien’s camera stays far back from the scene as Hao Hao attempts to seduce Vicky, first through romantic kissing and finally through cunnilingus (Millennium Mambo, 2001)..
Vicky, meanwhile, keeps her lips turned away from Hao Hao’s, and while he takes off her clothes she drinks a cup of tea and smokes a cigarette (Millennium Mambo, 2001).. Eventually, Hao Hao gives up and returns to the bedroom (Millennium Mambo, 2001).. The indifference and boredom that Vicky extends towards Hao Hao’s attempted lovemaking is exquisitely captured through the remoteness of the shooting style (Millennium Mambo, 2001).
Like Vicky, the camera feels passively disinterested, essentially standing back from the action, offering no encouragement to the viewer, and waiting for Hao Hao’s frisky moment to be over (Millennium Mambo, 2001). The lack of passion in the shooting style perfectly mirrors the lack of passion and apathy that forms the heart of the scene, and of Vicky and Hao Hao’s relationship (Millennium Mambo, 2001).
Critical response to the shooting style Hou Hsiao Hsien exhibited in Millennium Mambo was again mixed. Wilmington (2004) found that “Hou Hsiao Hsien, who often shoots his scenes in single takes with a roving camera, used only the sketchiest of scripts. Most of the heavily emotional scenes were improvised from brief outlines. Yet, working in this minimalist, seize-the-moment way…rivets our eyes and often wrings our heart” (p. 2).
Halcyon Realms (2005) lamented that “in the case of Millennium Mambo the potential bore factor skyrockets because the photographer is Lee Pingbin, who loves to lock down his camera and shoot empty compositions where the actors are completely out of frame” (No page). Similarly, Thom (2002) remarked that “Hou Hsiao Hsien’s film could pass for a documentary, if it weren’t for his extreme aesthetic approach” (no page). Kaicer (2001) found:
“Contemporary Hou Hsiao Hsien…disorienting, experimental, jarring. Unprecedented for him, most of Millennium Mambo is shot in shallow focus and medium close-up, with a roaming, exploratory camera always in motion.
A Hou Hsiao Hsien who directs the viewer’s eye, too, is something new: we’re used to slowly, patiently exploring the spaces he lays out for us, to exercising a certain autonomy as we read meaning into his films. Hou Hsiao Hsien controls our eyes in Millennium Mambo and shows us what he himself seems to be in the process of discovering, in something like real time” (No page).
Bingham (2003) described Millennium Mambo’s “intensely claustrophobic tone and oblique compositions…characters half-viewed through doorways etc,” yet also pointed to the similarity in content between Millennium Mambo and Hou Hsiao Hsien’s earlier work Flowers of Shanghai.
“Thematically, in its portrait of a girl building up to dumping her unemployed, layabout boyfriend whom she supports, it can be seen as a companion piece to Flowers of Shanghai, in that both films feature a protagonist desperate for freedom from an aimless relationship…or series of them in the earlier film…and independence in a culture still largely unsympathetic to their plight (No page).
Huang (1999) echoes Wood in her suggestion that to appreciate Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films, audience members must remove the lens of Hollywood and open their minds to a filmmaker whose narrative bias leans towards indirectness (No page).
In Huang’s (1999) mind, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films “present the viewer with certain problems, and not only because they demand some awareness of Taiwanese political and cultural history during the second half of the last century [but because] …their treatment of narrative structure has become increasingly challenging and unorthodox (No page).
This is especially true of his shooting style. In Huang’s (1999) words, “one feels at times that Hou Hsiao Hsien shoots only the sequences that really engage him, leaving the audience to fill in narrative hiatuses with a combination of common sense and imagination.
The many characters are seldom given the careful, emphatic introductions to which Hollywood has accustomed us, and close ups are rare, point-of-view shots non-existent; sequences are often entirely in long-shot. In short, Hou Hsiao Hsien expects us to work, concentrate, be vigilant; the films construct a spectator who is at once detached but sympathetic” (No page).
In essence, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s shooting style emulates Vicky’s experience of life in Taiwan – disconnected, emotionally detached, non participatory, and boring. The absence of a real narrative in Millennium Mambo echoes Vicky aimless existence. As Wilmington (2004) describes “Hou Hsiao Hsien has evolved an almost rarefied technique, suggesting a life that seems to rush past his camera, unmediated and unaware” (p. 2).
In the case of Vicky, the speed of the bar contrast sharply with the slow pace of change she exacts in her relationship with Hao Hao. How Hou Hsiao Hsien shoots Vicky’s world is exactly how Vicky sees the world – as a passive spectator, never really coming close to anything. Hou Hsiao Hsien’s shooting style appears to be patterned after his protagonist’s lived experience of life in Taiwan – passive, fleeting, distance.
Burnett (2004) points to Hou Hsiao Hsien’s ability to “manipulate…the device of the fade or the dissolve to deflect spectator attention away from the amount of time that has elapsed between segments and other such questions of plot and to direct he/she towards pondering the evolution of the film’s style” (No page).
In conclusion, director Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Millennium Mambo contains many of the filmmaker’s trademark touches. It is an aesthetically beautiful film, peopled by beautiful actors and replete with lush imagery.
However, the shooting style, the lack of nearness to the characters, creates an emotional distance that imbues the film with a lost quality that lingers throughout. Hou Hsiao Hsien shoots and stages Millennium Mambo in a way that renders Vicky’s actual experience of life – disengaged, severed from any real emotional engagement with the world or with others, and drifting somewhat directionless through life.
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