Stunning 4K Restoration Of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Romantically Difficult Reflection On The Dawning 2000s



Y2K turns its clock both forward and backward in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2001 Millennium Mambo. Completing and extending its temporal displacement artistically and thematically, Metrograph Pictures offers their stunning 4K restoration of this post-Y2K romantic evocation of aimless youth spinning heedlessly into an uncertain future, the audio-visual digital upgrade giving us a vivid and texturally-gorgeous view of an era ahead well into the era significantly behind. While best experienced in the immersive atmosphere of a theater-space, as this popular restoration has played the past several months at the famed Metrograph in New York City itself, Metrograph Pictures, partnering with Kino Lorber, opens a wider viewing window on the 4K-updated audio and visuals with their accompanying Blu-ray release. Giving us at home the opportunity to potentially immerse ourselves in the exciting if simultaneously enervating sights and sounds of the future lived retrospectively.

The film opens in a long subway corridor with a young twenty-something woman, Vicky (Shu Qi), walking rapidly through the dimly-lit space, peering occasionally back over her shoulder at half-speed recorded-motion even as she moves relentlessly forward. Subsequently detailing two significant romantic relationships as she lives, works, and plays in the year 2001, a voiceover narration from the character ten years in the future, and in the third person, both distances and draws viewers in to her moment-by-moment experiences through cramped apartments, back-lit and back-beating night-spots, and gradually out to neon-drenched views of millennium-era Taipei. The controlling, abusive Hao-hao (Tuan Chun-hao) gives way to a more stable but ambiguous connection to an older, small-time gangster named Jack (Jack Kao); with a delightfully unexpected inter- and postlude set in snow-covered Hokkaido and Tokyo, respectively. Ultimately leaving viewers to ponder what the future might hold for Vicky, as the person having replaced the person she once was narrates her own past from an unknown time and place, the final image of an unseasonable Japanese winterscape, with its Asian-language posters of old movies lining the snowy street in both spatial distance and captured time, also invites us to possibly contemplate a new era even as we appear to be leaving the old one.

My initial reaction on a first viewing of Millennium Mambo and particularly its forward-backwards view of 2001 Taipei, Taiwan was to personally remind me of stepping off a subway in late 2004 Seoul, South Korea, at the very beginning of eight years of living and working there, and suddenly being swept up and physically/mentally immersed in a future I’d only previously experienced in the movies. Looking back through the distance of several passing years, that’s really for me when the millennium truly began. Coming of age precisely when the world clock was turning forward may have been exciting, but it was also considerably daunting, and my own uncertain path led me for various reasons to live out my youth – “the best years of our lives” to title-quote another movie classic – halfway around the world. Like Vicky herself, I might, if opportunity or inspiration afforded, similarly choose to relate the experiences, thoughts, or impressions of those anxious years at a distance and, indeed, in the third person: impressionistically, elliptically, and frequently disorientingly.

What I related to most in Vicky’s physical and mental journey through this new future, then, was the sense of removal and distance from her own experiences, even as we watch her experiencing them. Hou’s, for many, difficult style serves this disconnected sense-impression brilliantly, the speed, light, energy, and noise surrounding the character, countered by the listlessness visibly apparent in far-from-home-like interiors, capturing in lengthier takes and at times chaotic mise-en-scene the oddly lulling and trance-like rhythms of life discomfitingly lived in a world in the difficult process of redefining itself. As is the character. Uncertain relationships, trapped in aimless and potentially dangerous work situations, high on life and drugs but really just wanting to go home, wherever that might be; the pitfalls can at times far exceed the emotional and sometimes chemically-induced ecstasy of life on the edge.

As a movie-portrait of aimless youth living in and through a global reset of space, distance, and time itself, all moving closer together even as everything else appears to be drifting apart, Vicky’s turbulently representative lifestyle, seen and experienced in viewing-retrospect, narrated from a distant point in the future, but looking back on a hyper-presently-unfolding past, permits viewers to see through the saturated lighting and distracting energy of 2001 Taipei and somehow perceive the emotional complexity of the character from within.

Which, from my viewing vantage, is simply a complicated way of saying that youth is never as fun or as straightforward as we may (or may wish to) remember it. Youth has its own peculiar, often rootless agenda, and the sometimes relentless swirl of both sped-up and slowed-down sound-and-images appeared, in viewing, and for lack of a better or clearer definition, as an audio-visual Millennium Mambo; where youth, age, and the future becomes inextricably tangled up with experience, change, and memory. A nearly impossible impression to convey or analyze in description, yet it further reminded this viewer of a vague yet persistent feeling, experienced while disembarking O’Hare International Airport after my sojourn abroad was ended and my own “millennium mambo” was completed, that not only was I at that moment no longer young, but that the past decade had happened to someone who was no longer myself.

I offer the sentence above and the three paragraphs preceding as both insubstantial and, again, personal association, told mainly to avoid paraphrasing or worse parroting the usual critical discourse on the considerable challenges posed by Hou Hsiao-hsien’s unique approach to narrative filmmaking. Simultaneously distanced from the viewer and yet somehow emotionally involving, it may take even those viewers familiar with his films several viewings before being able to properly articulate the strategies and techniques Hou employs to achieve, on one hand, a subjective, intimate film-space, as seen, perceived, and experienced against an exquisitely and formally composed background-setting. Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López in this regard contribute a nine-minute video-essay which takes a closer look at a significant four-minute sequence, detailing the lead-up to and subsequent police search of Hao-hao and Vicky’s cramped and cluttered, windowless apartment; Vicky watching helplessly as Hao-hao is ultimately arrested for theft. In examining the sequence from two different points of view, Martin and López offer an invaluable tutorial on the many levels and layers of Hou’s immersive – or in Martin’s words, “saturated” – stylistic approach both in terms of the characters onscreen and within the larger context of the film.

Critic K. Austin Collins contributes an audio commentary also included on this Metrograph Pictures/Kino Lorber Blu-ray, which in itself may be helpful to viewers, such as myself, who struggle to explain or even describe the haunting effect of this film. In addition to reflecting on and articulating many of the formal qualities of the film, particularly the distance and proximity of the camera from our main character, the seeming ease and effortlessness projected by actress Shu Qi, in both holding the attention of the camera and the viewer, and a constantly shifting perspective that, in viewing, feels simultaneously composed yet somehow incredibly spontaneous, Collins is otherwise admirably attuned to what one might call the “emotional temperature” of each unfolding scene, with close attention paid to how Vicky responds to and lives within spaces as varied as Hao-hao’s claustrophobic apartment to the sonically droning and visually garish bars and clubs she drifts detachedly through.

In particular, Collins is most interested in reorienting the discourse on this film and its unique “feel” towards a closer discussion of what we would nowadays call the “toxic relationship” harrowingly depicted in the film’s first hour between Vicky and the insecure, passive-aggressive, and ultimately controlling and abusive Hao-hao. Drawing viewers’ attention to concrete visual and thematic details, ranging from the way actress Shu Qi holds a cigarette to particular angles and views on repeated interior-spaces to the at times exaggerated sounds of passing trains to the pervading sense of “emotional rot” during one significant breakup scene, answered and echoed by the appearance of an actual window no less in Jacky’s more open-aired and clean-lined apartment, Collins makes connections between these several patterns of specificities and the again larger context of the film’s world as vividly portrayed in significant transition. It is at times a difficult listen, Collins speaks slowy and deliberately, sometimes repetitiously, and I’ll personally admit to having taken a nap halfway through, but the commentary nevertheless comes highly recommended for those, again, such as myself, looking for a greater understanding of Vicky and her Millennium Mambo.

Which leaves me here finally to heap praise on this 4K restoration, visually improving on mere memory to evoke a time and setting now past, with the present-tense immediacy of a future continuously and moment-by-moment coming into being. It is, from experience, a difficult place to be, and a more difficult time to live through, but hopefully with a few more viewings under my belt I’ll feel a bit more comfortable articulating that amorphous space between youth, memory, and change. Having just reached the last sentence, I almost feel ready now to write my review of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo.

Images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver and are taken from the new Kino Lorber/Metrograph Pictures Blu-ray of the 4K restoration.