Millennium Mambo ★★★½

#58 of 100 in my Top 100 Directors Challenge

Apparently slackers and hipsters were just as in common in Taipei at the turn of the new millennium as they were in New York or London. Diector Hou Hsiao-Hsien gives us a glimpse of one side of life in Republic of China in the year 2000, focusing on the memories of a woman named Vicky (Shu Qi) as she reflects back a decade to her relationship with on-again, off-again boyfriend Hao-Hao (Tuan Chun-hao).

Vicky's life in those days was completely listless -- hours spent smoking, drinking, dancing, screwing and generally avoiding any form of responsibility. Hao-Hao brought drugs to the mix, along with video games and techno music. Jobless, he would get along by borrowing from friends and stealing from his father, which at one point lands the 20-somethings in trouble with the police. Hao-Hao also has a habit of going through Vicky's belongings and harassing her about how she spends her time, her money and her phone conversations. One of his personal perversions is that he likes to sniff her all over like a dog -- really creepy.

Despite the suffocating going-nowhere relationship. Vicky pays for their shared apartment by working as a bar hostess at night. That's where she meets Jack (Jack Hao), a coffee shop owner with a shoulder tattoo and friends that mark him as a gangster. But of all the people Vicky knows, he's probably the nicest and the most adult. Then she meets a pair of Japanese brothers, Jun and Ko (Jun and Ko Takeuchi), who invite her to visit them in Yubari, Hokkaido. That's all the excuse she needs to break up with Hao-Hao, but he keeps coming back like a bad penny ... angry, manipulative and abusive.

There is no real plot here, just a major episode in a woman's life, looking back. The camerawork features lots of close-ups and tightly cropped frames, which gives the feeling of being smothered at times. The electronic music suits the atmosphere of youthful mindlessness, but it can get a bit annoying, too. I liked the scenes set in Japan and the lighter moments playing in the snow, but I was sure glad that smell-o-vision hasn't been invented yet, because the constant puffing on cigarettes would have driven me from the room.

This film nabbed the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes for sound engineer Tu Duu-Chih, plus a Palme d'Or nomination for Hou. On the DVD, there's an extended cut of Vicky's time in Japan that implies she might have discovered the need to grow up, but that's also implied by the dispassionate way narrator Vicky recalls her past -- a clear indication that she feels some nostalgia, but she has moved past her time of wanton idleness.

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