Sordid yet transcendent, bathed in neon haze and set to a relentless techno-beat, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Millennium Mambo” — the tale of a teenage Taipei club girl — is not only the most pop movie the great Taiwanese filmmaker has ever made but, intermittently, among the most astonishingly beautiful.
The movie has a capital-L look, and the 4K restoration, opening at Metrograph in Manhattan on Dec. 23, does it justice.
“Millennium Mambo” premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, where it was given a mixed reception and an award for sound design. Hou’s first feature since his exquisite period piece “Flowers of Shanghai,” the movie marked his entry into contemporary territory occupied by two of his younger admirers, the filmmakers Olivier Assayas and Wong Kar-wai.
Hou’s frequent cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-bin, had just shot Wong’s “In the Mood For Love,” and he reprised its voluptuous imagery: Cigarettes are orange points of light in the blue-on-blue disco where Vicky (Shu Qi) spends her nights; the cramped, cruddy apartment she shares with her emotionally abusive boyfriend, a DJ wannabe (Tuan Chun-hao), is a perfumed miasma. The pad’s lush mise-en-scène sets up a shock cut to a gyrating butt in the hostess bar where Vicky has taken a job and where she meets her sometime protector, a benign gangster with a Buddhist streak (Hou regular Jack Kao).
Some took “Millennium Mambo” as Hou’s misguided attempt to connect with a younger generation, perhaps forgetting that he had begun his career as a commercial filmmaker and made more than a few “youth films” — notably the not dissimilar and initially underappreciated “Daughter of the Nile.”
According to Maggie Cheung, Hou had originally wanted her to play Vicky, opposite Tony Leung, her co-star from “In the Mood for Love.” Shu Qi is a less subtle actor than Cheung, but the movie is stronger for it. Stunningly photogenic, remote and self-destructive, alternately passive and hysterical, Shu Qi’s character lives in a trance, reminiscent of the Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick. As the New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell wrote in his mildly favorable review, “the insistence of high-throb electronica calls out to Vicky, so that she pounds the thoughts out of her head.”
Vicky’s neurotic behavior makes “Millennium Mambo” almost a case history or, given her repetitive voice-over narration, a kind of ballad. At the same time, like other Hou films, it is a temporal pretzel. Vicky narrates her story, apparently set in the year 2000, from a point 10 years in the future. Not infrequently we hear about events before we see them.
Most mysterious are the brief sequences set in the sleepy, snowy Japanese island of Hokkaido — an alpine environment far different from steamy Taipei. Are these unmotivated scenes a flash-forward to Vicky’s untroubled future? A deliberately unconvincing happy ending à la Douglas Sirk? A fantasy triggered by her chance encounter, while clubbing, with two Japanese brothers?
That the director is something of a Japanophile — and that, in a spasm of narrative ambiguity, Vicky finds herself in the snowbound town that hosts the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival — could support any of these theories.
Opens Dec. 23 at Metrograph, Manhattan; metrograph.com.