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A girl is advancing graciously along a walkaway, giving sometimes the impression of floating; she's talking presumably about herself, but at the third person. Or is it about another girl? She's saying that the story has happened ten years ago, in 2001. It's about an abusive boyfriend and about her dependence on him, but her tone is detached, and she's smiling. Are we really in 2011 in this scene? Or the girl from 2001 is imagining her future (Millennium Mambo was made actually in 2001)? As she is advancing, the walkaway becomes a tunnel going down: is it a metaphor for the road that life follows toward the end? The whole scene seems surreal, sending subtle signals: maybe the story in the movie is just symbolic, like in a medieval morality.
Actually the walkaway exists in reality. It is in Keelung, a city on the border of the ocean. The girl exists also in reality, and she is from that city, too. One evening, in a bar in Taipei, she told Hou Hsiao-Hsien her story, talking about herself at the third person, and with the same detachment as the personage from the movie.
Why did she tell her story to the filmmaker? I think because Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a good listener, and people feel confidence and sympathy in good listeners. The movies of Hou Hsiao-Hsien show a particular respect and empathy for people like Vicky, and Hao-Hao, and Jack: young people floating freely over the borders of promiscuity, guys good of nothing, bar girls, small thieves, petty gangsters.
The plot could be told in just a couple of sentences: a teenage girl (Vicky) is trying to break with her abusive boyfriend (Hao-Hao), only she always comes back to him; it's like a spell; she needs a job as he doesn't work; she becomes a stripper in a bar where a small gangster (Jack) offers her protection; will the new relation evolve beyond camaraderie? will she rather come back once more to Hao-Hao?
There are three great masters here: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the filmmaker, Chu Tien-Wen, the author of the screenplay, and Lee Ping-Bing, the cinematographer. Each scene of Millennium Mambo carries some kind of magic and seems unreal: it comes in a halo of blue tones; people and objects are taking shape, to repeat the same basic action; he is abusive, she is submissive, again and again. Taipei: a city of young people, populating the night bars, living the rhythms of techno music, sleeping during the day.
As the movie is developing slowly on the screen, you are looking for a sense in all that. The action is not linear and some scenes are even repeated. As it happens with all movies of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the effect is not immediate. It is like depot medication: the feeling about the movie is penetrating you slowly, long after it has ended. Sometimes it can take years. The art of Hou is of a special kind: words like wizardry or slow poison are not out of context.
To get the sense of the movie, you should watch carefully the ending scene, taking place in Japan during winter. The fact that a story from Taiwan moves suddenly to Japan is not important: the reason there is the snow! It snowed in Tokyo that winter, remembers Vicky (the sentence sounds so great! the author of the screenplay, Chu Tien-Wen, is one of the most important names in Taiwanese literature).
The movie is about our dreams: they are pure, our dreams, we build them in immaculate snow, we live our lives in the country of snowmen. We dream about eternity: they will live, our dreams, only as long as snowmen live.