This Millenium Mambo essay contains spoilers. Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s 2001 film features Shu Qi, Jack Kao and Chun-hao Tuan. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.
The 2001 film Millenium Mambo is full of loaded mise-en-scène. Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Taiwanese classic examines the mindset of a Taipei hostess (Shu Qi as Vicky) who drifts around the city while dealing with an overbearing boyfriend (Tuan Chun-hao as Hao-Hao). The director frequently returns to the same interior setting, albeit with changing mise-en-scène that informs the audience about the protagonist’s detachment from her immediate surroundings and the outside world. Witness a first act shot (00:13:00) that at once thematically underlines the character essentials while calling back to the visual design of Hou’s previous film, Flowers of Shanghai (1998); a tale about female sex workers in 1884 China. In Millennium Mambo, Vicky slowly retreats from the foreground to a background room. She gazes off into a seemingly empty void as Hao-Hao plants a kiss on her neck. On a table in the foreground: beer cans, a candle, a plant… a sign of life. These items replace the opium, drinks and food from Flowers of Shanghai. In both films, women try to escape isolated environments. Hou stays true to the four elements of mise-en-scène: setting, costume, lighting and character movement.
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Millenium Mambo’s costume design differs greatly from Flowers of Shanghai due to the 117-year timeline gap. In the 2001 film, Vicky radiates with beauty and style while navigating the city. At home, though, the viewer glimpses moments of uncertainty and confusion. Vicky wears a hair net while speaking to the police. Moments later, Hou frames her not in the foreground, but rather just behind heart-shaped door decorations. Vicky is trapped, unable to find true love but still hopeful that it exists in some form. The humble clothing contrasts with the lavish outfits worn by the women of Flowers of Shanghai. Now, the bedroom background that Hou normally prefers becomes the foreground in Millenium Mambo. The outside world awaits Vicky yet she can’t quite see the light.
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Hou retains his core mise-en-scène in Millenium Mambo during a second-half scene. Once again, a candle sits in the foreground, this time by itself. As Hao-Hao drinks a beer, he speaks to Vicky about coming from “two different worlds.” The claustrophobic setting brings them together as Hou shows off his lighting skills. Vicky — whose red top matches the wallpaper — launches a pillow attack on her boyfriend, with her bed items — lit by a lamp — matching the design of the wallpaper and a surrounding glow. In this moment, the protagonist does indeed escape but doesn’t make it that far. Vicky arrives where she started — at the table in the foreground, where she sips on a beer while staring at the glow of a candle. Hao-Hao disappears from the background. Whereas the women of Flowers of Shanghai enjoy their opium with a smile, Vicky puts down her beer with a grimace. Hou’s lighting accentuates all the character traits that have already been established in Millenium Mambo.
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During a climactic sequence in Millennium Mambo, Hou contrasts Vicky’s home isolation with the movement of a passing train. Again, there’s a light in the foreground (a lamp). Interestingly, though, Vicky hasn’t been pushed to the background. In fact, she engages with the outside world while smoking a cigarette in bed. She doesn’t face towards the camera, but rather looks sideways, perhaps contemplating a chance to live a more meaningful life. Hou once again incorporates the main four elements of mise-en-scène: setting, costume, lighting and movement. The motion, however, originates with passing trains that move in opposite directions. One could even say that Millenium Mambo is fundamentally about “the pushback,” about Vicky’s need to stand up for herself and move away from a toxic environment.
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Hou’s mise-en-scène in Millenium Mambo is the mark of a true auteur. He recycles visual designs from Flowers of Shanghai but makes an entirely different movie, set in a different century, that’s arguably better. It’s amazing what one can do with a simple apartment setting when all the mise-en-scène is on point.
A 4k restoration of Millenium Mambo is screening at Metrograph in New York City throughout February 2023.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.
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Categories: 2020s, 2023 Film Essays, Drama, Featured, Romance
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