Combustible Celluloid Review - Millennium Mambo (2001), Chu T'ien-wen, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Shu Qi, Jack Kao, Tuan Chun-hao, Chen Yi-hsuan, Takeuchi Jun
Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
With: Shu Qi, Jack Kao, Tuan Chun-hao, Chen Yi-hsuan, Takeuchi Jun
Written by: Chu T'ien-wen
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug content and some sexuality
Language: In Chinese with English subtitles
Running Time: 119
Date: 05/19/2001

Millennium Mambo (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Future Tense

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Chinese-born, Taiwanese-raised Hou Hsiao-hsien is considered one of the world's finest living film directors. Yet he's far from a household name. Up until last year, not a single one of his ten films had received a U.S. theatrical distribution. On the other hand, a 1999 Hou retrospective sold out all over the country, and festival screenings of his films have always been full. Now, after languishing for three years, his 2001 film Millennium Mambo opens in U.S. theaters, the first of his films to do so.

Many critics -- even Hou's biggest fans -- originally dismissed Millennium Mambo as a minor work. Most inferred that Hou had encroached on Wong Kar-wai territory by telling a story of disaffected youth and missed connections. Yet I believe it's not only a masterpiece, but also Hou's most accessible film to date.

Set in 2000, but narrated from ten years in the future, the film begins with an astonishing opening shot of Vicky (Shu Qi), walking joyously in slow motion through a winding, covered, lighted walkway. Stretching out her arms and flipping her luxurious hair, she seems very happy -- yet she never leaves the walkway.

Photographed by Mark Lee Ping-bing (who took over Wong's In the Mood for Love when Christopher Doyle left) the film throbs with darkness pierced by small colored lights. A girl explains Vicky's story to us in hushed tones; we might assume that it's Vicky narrating her own story, except that the narrator refers to Vicky in the third person. She also explains the stories to us before we see them happen, giving the film a dislocated, inevitable feel.

In the film's first half, Vicky lives with a neurotic and childish boy named Hao-hao. He gets jealous whenever she leaves the apartment, yet pays very little attention to her when she's there, preferring to play video games or practice his DJ skills. Once she gets the nerve to leave Hao-hao, she winds up with Jack, a gangster-type much more sophisticated but no less stable than the first guy.

Some viewers may feel slighted by the film, as if Vicky's pointless life results in a pointless film; quite the contrary. Hou gets so close to Vicky's life it feels as if she's living it, but in fact she's drifting, out of control, and unable to see past the day-to-day drudgery and misery. Hou's film is great because it allows us to see the duplicity of Vicky's life, the big picture as well as the small one.

To that end, Hou uses his trademark lingering shots in Vicky's apartment, giving us a feel of comfort and recognition, but also a kind of stagnation. It's all the more remarkable then that Hou finds a way to end the picture. Following Jack to Japan but finding him gone, Vicky starts her life anew. The last shot has her walking in the snow, which not only revisits the nostalgia of an earlier time, but also gives us a glimmer of hope.

Many people complain that the days of great foreign films are over: the Ingmar Bergmans, Francois Truffauts, Federico Fellinis and Akira Kurosawas are gone. Not so. The cuddly, middlebrow foreign movies get all the press, but the masters of world filmmaking are alive and well in Hou Hsiao-hsien and his peers.

Palm Pictures' DVD release preserves the film's rich colors and contrasts nicely, and it's also one of the best Hou films to watch on the small screen, although for some reason, this transfer is several minutes shorter than the theatrical version. The DVD comes with a 9-minute video interview with Hou, a deleted scene, filmographies, a choice between 2.0 stereo, DTS or 5.1 surround, and trailers for Millennium Mambo, demonlover, Flower of Evil, Morvern Callar, Noi and Tom Dowd and the Language of Music.

In 2023, Kino Lorber and Metrograph Pictures released a new Blu-ray with a 4K restoration of the film, with glorious picture and sound. Bonus features include a commentary track by film critic K. Austin Collins, a video essay by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin, and the new re-release trailer. Audio mix is available in both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD, and there are fresh subtitles. Highly Recommended.

Movies Unlimtied