Most of us, at one point or another, have known a girl like Vicky — pretty, smart and hailing from a good family, yet somehow aimless and self-destructive. Despite all the opportunities given to her, she always seems to make the wrong decision. She gets involved with all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons and eschews every chance she gets to break out of the cycle. As portrayed by the radiant Shu Qi (“The Transporter”) in Hsiao-hsien Hou’s “Millennium Mambo,” Vicky is the singular personification of everything wrong with today’s disaffected urban youth. Trapped in a dead-end relationship with her good for nothing boyfriend Hao-Hao (Tuan Chun-hao), Vicky’s life is one long binge of alcohol, recreational drugs and empty sex.
Although set in 2001, Vicky narrates the film in a third person retrospective from 10 years in the future. We learn that she’s been in and out of a relationship with Hao-Hao since she was 16, intermittently breaking up with him when she’s tired of his obsessive and possessive behavior, only to return to him a short time later. We’re also told that Hao-Hao deliberately made Vicky miss her high school final exams for fear of her moving on and away from him. They are in a relationship based on familiarity rather than passion, a fact not helped by Hao-Hao’s jealous and abusive nature.
Add to this dead end Hao-Hao’s status as a perpetually unemployed leech. He spends Vicky’s money on drugs and booze, goes through her purse looking for phone receipts, and violently interrogates her about every long phone call. He demands sexual access to her at any time, yet never returns any emotional intimacy. Despite all this, Vicky doesn’t have the fortitude to leave him, for the simple reason that Hao-Hao is the only boyfriend she’s known, and she can’t see beyond him.
The film shifts gears a about halfway through, when Vicky takes up with a middle-aged man named Jack (Hou regular Jack Kao), whom she meets while working as a hostess at a gentlemen’s club. In Jack, Vicky finds someone who actually lavishes attention on her without Hao-Hao’s emotional and sexual abusiveness, but unfortunately the relationship is platonic, and Jack sees Vicky as little more than arm candy for nights out on the town. One suspects that Vicky is wise to this, but overlooks it because Jack is first and foremost a symbol of stability, something Vicky hasn’t had in her life.
As Jack and Vicky’s strange relationship continues, Jack’s attitude towards her shifts, and he comes to see her as a ‘project’ of sorts — an opportunity to mold and improve someone. The interplay between the aimless Vicky and the meditative Jack is presented as master-student rather than lovers, and soon Jack abruptly abandons her, forcing reality to once again intrude on Vicky’s ephemeral shell of bliss. The fact that Vicky ends up stranded in Tokyo looking for Jack is an allusion to how aimless her life has been up to this point.
Shot in vibrant shades of blue and red, “Millennium Mambo” shifts between the shimmering, thumping Taipei nightclubs where Vicky drowns away her evenings in alcohol and cigarettes and the drab, cramped two-room apartment she shares with Hao-Hao. The two venues offer a vivid depiction of Vicky’s highs and lows. In the clubs, where she’s surrounded by friends and alcohol, Vicky is free, if only temporarily, from the shackles of real life; she gets to move to her own rhythm, bolstered by the thumping techno beats and flashing lights. In stark contrast, her home life is a prison, and Hao-Hao her strict warden. In both cases, Hou powerfully dictates the confining limits of his characters’ environments, which forbids them from maturing and perhaps moving on to brighter destinations.
Yet, for all of its visual panache and rhythmic drive, “Mambo” is hamstrung by a lethargic pace. Despite the people Vicky meets and the places she finds herself, not very much seems to happen in the film. The camera is usually static, forcing us to numbly watch Vicky as she either drowns herself in Johnny Walker or pout and fume over her lamentable situation. And while we spend all our time with Vicky, we never really learn all that much about her. In fact, we learn more about Hao-Hao than anyone else in the film, including Jack, who ultimately comes across as a poorly conceived character when all is said and done.
Unfortunately that’s the main problem with “Millennium Mambo.” It’s a stylish canvas filled with vacant characters, but no one, along with the story, ever goes anywhere worthwhile.
Hsiao-hsien Hou (director) / T’ien-wen Chu (screenplay)
CAST: Qi Shu …. Vicky
Jack Kao …. Jack
Chun-hao Tuan …. Hao-Hao
Yi-Hsuan Chen …. Xuan
Jun Takeuchi …. Jun
Chen-er Niu …. Doze