Hou Hsaio-hen is known for lingering shots featuring loving images of his stars. His stories are usually incidental. Instead he is content to spend a long time just watching his characters. This works well in Flowers of Shanghai where he spends time in a brothel watching opium hazed prostitutes deal with the dish life handed them. It also works well in Three Times where the subjects are having a multi-generational love affair and their attraction is the subject of the film. However in Millennium Mambo, the technique makes the film seem infinitely longer than it has to be while also saying absolutely nothing about its character.
Vicky is a club kid. Her nights are filled with alcohol, cigarettes, techno music and glow in the dark shirts. She is stuck with a lover that she can’t quite shake off. He is an abusive drug addict that doesn’t want to work. He is content with stealing from his parents and borrowing money from his friends. Vicky goes to work at a hostess bar (which just means that she is companion that gives lap dances) where she meets a gangster named Jack. Jack gives her shelter when she decides to finally separate completely from Hao-Hao (her slacker lover). But even Jack can’t give her what she needs. He asks her to come to Tokyo, only to abandon her in a hotel room.
This may seem like a coherent plot, but it took me reading several reviews to distill down to this. All of the action including Jack beating up gangsters, Hao-Hao abusing Vicky, and several other incidents happen off-screen. What we get to see instead is Vicky pouting and pounding down an impressive amount of alcohol. The events pass by almost unnoticed and veer off into non-sequiturs. This is not helped by the voice over. The voice over is Vicky in the future looking back at the events in the past. This is all well and good, except she gives no context for what is happening on-screen, just what will happen a couple of minutes to a half hour later. While it may be a deliberate artistic choice, it is not a good one. It just serves to confuse and bore me more.
Although I couldn’t be bothered by the plot or what it supposedly said about youth culture in Taiwan, I adored the cinematography. Mark Lee Ping Bin has worked with Hou Hsaio-hen on many features, but I know him most from In the Mood for Love. With his skills, the early 2000s Taipei turn into a fluorescent wonder land. If only the whole movie was filled with just pleasant shots and not ruined by the main characters’ whining.