Directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsien, Millenium Mambo is a compelling portrait of anomie in modern day Taiwan. The lead female, Vicky, played by actress Shu Qi, is seen endlessly lighting cigarettes which quickly comes to represent her lack of direction, her uncertainty about her life. She basically does not know what to do so to substitute something halfway "concrete" for this lack of direction, she lights a cigarette.
In addition, as is true for Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Barren Illusion (not available domestically on VHS or DVD), the director peppers the film with references to Western culture that have pervaded the culture of Taiwan; the implication is that this counts in large part for Vicky's alienation and, by extension, that of her friends who are also bar girls and also that of her boyfriend, Hao Hao.
Hsien uses time splicing to tell his story and this is a subtle use indeed. We see a back and forth of events, some of which Vicky narrates in voiceover, some of which she does not. She goes to Japan to find her new boyfriend Jack after she breaks up with Hao Hao; Jack is a gangster, another oblique reference to Western culture that has corrupted, or at least changed Taiwanese culture. But she also goes there to find two brothers, whose names escape me at the moment, who are half Japanese and half Taiwanese. While there, the camera languidly passes by a long series of posters illlustrating movies both Western and Asian alike. This is Hsien's way, no doubt, of indicating the context of this film itself; it is, after all, only a movie. Or maybe it is, more than anything else, a movie. Who can tell?
Hsien is known for his seemingly ambling, plotless style, and this film is no exception. But here he subtly manages to get Vicky's psyche to burrow under our skins, and the effect is, as many have said, hypnotic. This is as well underscored by the ceaseless techno music, an aspect of the film about which Hsien comments in the interesting interview that comprises one of the special features on the disk.
Hsien's style lends itself, more than anything else, to an intensely subjective view of what he is trying to accomplish with his film(s). For me, this was far more compelling than Goodbye South, Goodbye, a film in which the actor who plays Jack in Millenium Mambo, Jack Kao, also plays a gangster. But here in Millenium Mambo, Hsien wisely focuses instead on a young woman whose emotional isolation, whose anomie, resonates far more fully and deeply throughout the film than was true in Goodbye, South, Goodbye.
There is a gradual momentum that build in Millenium Mambo and it is, I feel, truly intriguing.