Sunday, March 1, 2009
"THE BLINDNESS OF THE PRESENT"
Vicky smokes, drinks, dances, has no job, and no real prospects. The best that can be said, is that she passes the time. MILLENIUM MAMBO (Qian xi man po) is a chronicle of the floating year of her life, 2001, where she drifted farthest from herself. Ensconcing in the neon bath and anonymity of the Taipei nightclub scene to escape the claustrophobia of her relationship and apartment, Vicky divides her affections between two divergent men. The first is Hao-hao, her live-in boyfriend. He is a neurotic and jealous recluse, constantly suspecting Vicky of infidelity. He enacts absurd investigative rituals upon her everytime she returns home; including stripping her down to her underwear and smelling her body for the scents of other people, rooting through her purse and wallet, and even calling the numbers of suspect receipts. Vicky resolves to break from Hao-hao once she has spent the NT $500,000 from their bank account. As arbitrary a marker as that may be, it is definitive, and therefore becomes the single fixed point of gravity in Vicky's amorphous, vice-ruled complacency. Her constant return to Hao-hao is much less a response to gravity than it is, as suggested, a complacency, a reflex to her fear of "fully being," of actualizing within a broader scheme of uncertainties (this having somewhat to do with a country, Taiwan, that is experiencing its own existential limbo). The second man in Vicky's orbit is Jack, though he doesn't distinctly overlap Hoa-hao's timeline. Jack is a rather sensitive and modestly expressive gangster who meets Vicky in the bar in which she then plays hostess. Their relationship is chaste, and there is a resonant caring that Jack emanates for Vicky, who is left reeling after her break from Hao Hao. One might liken it, emotionally, to the kind of disruption one feels after spinning in circles repeatedly, and then suddenly halting. For a moment, it seems as if the only relief may be to start spinning again, but Vicky lets the tremors run their course instead, allows those detached floating landscapes to coalesce back into a single image of her world without Hao-hao (at least, she begins this process). Jack's mind and inclinations are clear, and he is patiently wades through Vicky’s process of self-reclamation, something he helps to mend with a parenting affection. There is a tangible potential between them, but it is up to Vicky to take hold of it, or even to see it. She is however, like most of us, blind in the present.
MILLENIUM MAMBO is driven by the same mechanisms of spontaneity, naturalism, and immediacy that all Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films are. However, MILLENIUM MAMBO, more than any of his earlier autobiographical extracts, has the distinct feeling of having been structured in its aftermath, and in no other case is this tactical retroaction more appropriate than in MILLENIUM MAMBO, as it is manifested through the refracted structuring of one woman, Vicky’s, memories of her 2001 year. The additional layer of Vicky’s active recollection through voice over narration channels a dimension of post-modernism heretofore untapped in Hou’s career, save for the emotionally-infused spatiotemporal complexity of GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN (1995) which scrambles itself with a deceptively simple vignetted formula. What Hou has done with these two films, particularly MILLENIUM MAMBO, is apply his early generalized thesis of building intimately framed, retroactive historical clarifications of the 20th Century Taiwanese experience, to a modern context via a solitary person. In MILLENIUM MAMBO he mirrors his repeated enaction of that thesis, shared of course by most filmmakers of the first Taiwan New Cinema movement, through the narrative device of Vicky's own self-remembrance.
Like a master storyteller, Hou establishes MILLENIUM MAMBO's meandering atemporal platform in the opening shot; We are the floating lens that follows behind Vicky, strolling through a long enclosed skywalk at night, smoking a cigarette, a dull neon-blue light bathing her from above. She looks at the city around her through the incremental arched openings of the walls. She looks behind, past us, to where she has come from, and eventually Vicky leaves us at the top of a flight of stairs as she continues onward. In this act of stopping, Hou intimates that Vicki's world is not confined by the frame, nor the by the duration of a scene, nor the parenthesis of the film itself. This long uninterrupted shot is a perfect microcosm of MILLENIUM MAMBO, made most evident by the back-logging voice-over narration of Vicky’s future self. A kind of self-reflexive self-reflection is manifested as Vicky looks through the openings of the skywalk concurrent with her future self, peering through an incremental threading of memories. And of course, in a few fleeting moments of this metonym, we see a Vicky that moves forward while looking back.
A sustaining rule of observation is that Hou’s films manifest in an accumulation, rather than by causality. They tend to mirror actuality, though perhaps differently than, say, Italian Neo Realism. A film like BICYCLE THEIVES, though equal to MILLENIUM MAMBO in its reflection of a specific time and place, occurs around a clear conflict. But as per the reality of our more affluent modern times, MILLENIUM MAMBO’s conflict is appropriately ambiguous and intangible, residing in the emotive and psycho-existential, rather than in the strata of pragmatic survival. So, it comes down to the fact that Hou and De Sica aren't divergent in their aim, merely that they differ in the nature their own personal contexts.
In MILLENIUM MAMBO, scenes are long, make very few cuts, and derive their dramaturgy from a language of minutia: hanging around in clubs, domestic quarreling, cleaning up an apartment, smoking, making a drink, all coupled with a natural un-manipulative sense of human sympathy and relatability. Hou's films carry the natural pulse and texture of their time and place, and he makes it clear in structure, by his aptitude for the peripheral world ( through diegetic sound, through absence, and through the acknowledgement by characters of places and moments outside of the immediate image), that the pulse extends beyond the formal confines of the narrative. For characters, like Vicky and Hao Hao, that are so lured, or lulled by the literal pulse of club music, they are completely out of sync with the pulse within their own lives and their relationship to the world. To an extent, they invent or adopt a kind of severity, a reaction to their claustrophobic floating lives, building conflict and suspicion upon vice and aimlessness. Hou is able to capture that feeling of emotional / biorhythmic divorce with a lingering but drifting camera, a visual distortion of characters by alternating shadow and neon, and by drowning out their words with the drone of diegetic techno music.
Because voice-over-narration is often a crutch, an escape, or a deliberate superfluity, one must be discerning of its functionality. In MILLENIUM MAMBO it is of a seemingly simple, but heavily compounded significance. The fact that future-Vicki is speaking of her past-self in third person suggests, first, that she no longer defines herself by her former standards or circumstances. She looks back on her actions of that year, 2001, and realizes what kind of spiral she caught herself in. She reflects on that year as a time that informed a transition. We don’t know how much she culled from those agonies, but we are aware of her self-awareness and of the distance that she required, as we all do, to gain any kind of inward objectivity. Vicky’s voice-over-narration touches on the idea that "hindsight is 20/20." She describes situations from her past before they happen on the screen, something that gently blindsides the audience on all its occasions. Future Vicky watches these events in stride with the audience. Her recollections are imbued, not with regret or judgment, but with an understanding and an earned clarity. Not only that, but under the insinuation that each scene is a “memory viewed from above,” v-o-n puts the film into a cerebral setting, as though we are witness to Vicky’s actual memory, as well as privy to her cognitive act of remembering.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, v-o-n is yet another way of showing, within the closed text opportunity of the film, that Vicki's world doesn't simply end in 2001 with the credits. It continues to exist outside of our ability to see it. She continues to have self doubt, to wander, and to seek the avenue back to herself. This lends an additional layer of realism to the film.