Saturday, February 28, 2004

Millennium Mambo (Qianxi manbo)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 February 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Film discussion groups are wonderful things. Why, if not for the one after this, I might have come away thinking Millennium Mambo was something of a below-average movie. I'm still not convinced it's a great one, but I will accept that it's a good one. It's the kind of film that's occasionally described as "lyrical", perhaps more about capturing a feeling than telling a story.

Not that it doesn't have a story - it does, and a fairly well-defined one: A young woman (Qi Shu, probably best known in the US for The Transporter) in a bad relationship moving on to the next stage of her life. The problem is that the girl in question, Vicky, is fairly passive. She seems to initiate very little, and often comes across as fickle and somewhat cold toward the people who like her. Not that some don't deserve it; the boyfriend she lives with is more than a little bit of a creep. He searches through her purse while she's in the shower, and has a weird habit of smelling her that clearly makes her uncomfortable; it's implied that the only thing keeping them together is that once you move in and start intermingling your things, it becomes hard to disentagle yourself.

Much of the action that moves the story ahead takes place off-screen, and director Hsiao-hsien Hou uses some of the more peculiar narration I can recall - though the film takes place in 2001 (the year of its release in Taiwan), it's narrated by (presumably) Vicky looking back at it from ten years later. I say presumably because all the narration is in the third person. Some in the discussion found that reassuring, saying it likely means that by 2011 Vicky has grown up some more, to the point where she considers this younger self a different person. At the time, though, it just seemed odd to me, and somewhat annoying, since the narration often covered events that were shown directly afterward in the picture.

What you do see on screen generally looks very nice; cinematographer Pin Bing Lee has a great eye for color and composition. There's an incredible purity to the scenes that take place in snowy Yubari in northern Japan, which are also the only ones where characters aren't smoking like chimneys. Perhaps this is an indicator that this is where Vicky will reclaim her innocence and happiness.

That, I suppose, is what make Millennium Mambo so simultaneously beautiful and frustrating. There are layers to it, which bear fruit if you put in the time examining them (or are one of the lucky people who see such things naturally). But, if you just sit down to watch it hoping to be told a story, it's easy to feel like nothing happens, and in a slow, artsy manner. Wven if you tend to take that view, it's still pretty easy to enjoy the visuals.

No comments: