How Millennium Mambo set the blueprint for Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ Miami-set coming-of-ager echoes the visual language of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2001 film.

Words

Ross McDonnell

Although not all of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 18 feature films have been made available to Western audiences, the veteran Taiwanese director’s import and influence still pronounces itself, every once in a while, in the work of other filmmakers. To the uninitiated, the subject matter of a typical Hou film may seem challenging, even impenetrable. Their rigorous examination of pre- and post-colonial Taiwan is perhaps off-putting, but their innovative style – form and visual language – has proven hugely inspirational.

That this kind of exchange exists between East Asian and European cinema is hardly surprising. That Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is shot and scored the way it is, however, is quite extraordinary. Emerging confidently and fully formed, the many below-the-line Academy Award nominations (Original Score, Cinematography, Film Editing) this Miami-set drama has received might dismiss, or temporarily suspend, the frustrating argument that some films are guilty of prioritising style over substance. Both Millennium Mambo and Moonlight are coming-of-age films in which the technical achievements of many serve a director’s singular storytelling. Supremely cinematic, they are substantial feats of contemporary filmmaking.

With Millennium Mambo, Hou trades his usual temporal distance from an historical situation, his subject matter, for a critical one. Not necessarily about his home or his own backstory, the film is an effort at diagnosis – an attempt to convey the anxieties of a generation, a young, urban alienation the director describes as “their cycle and rhythm of “birth, age, illness and death””. Set in 2001, the film follows Vicky (Shu Qi), who shares an apartment with her abusive, controlling DJ boyfriend. Without steady employment, they turn to drink and dabble in amphetamines. Vicky is evidently lonely – her life appears aimless, her lifestyle somewhat self-destructive.

Like Moonlight’s original score – a “chopped and screwed” crossfading of classical music and hip-hop, breakbeats slowed way down – it’s the evocative sound design of Millennium Mambo that, most viscerally, transfers the film’s mood to its audience. The Taipei rave scene sees Vicky and her friends trapped by the propulsive rhythm and repetition of its entrancing, menacing techno soundtrack. This high tempo conversely reveals an actual, absolute stasis – boredom being core theme. More subtle is how Millennium Mambo captures this tedious truth (the relentless passing of time) through its cinematography. In particular, the film’s iconic opening shot establishes and epitomises so well so much of what Hou accomplishes here stylistically.

Part prologue, part metaphor, the scenes follows Vicky as she walks through an overpass, in forward march from point A to point B, occasionally turning, breaking the fourth wall. She provides voiceover from 2011, 10 years in the future, referring to herself in the third-person. Unlike Moonlight’s three-part structure, we somehow witness both past and future versions of Vicky meeting in the middle, in the film’s continuous present tense.

Everywhere, the film’s inventive camerawork strives to convey this sense of continuity, what it means to experience time. Often, images appear strained, a blur before things adjust and come into focus, or as long uninterrupted takes that wait patiently for Vicky to finish smoking her cigarette. But always, the image is able to adapt, quickly arriving at new compositions in spite of being in constant movement.

Amid the motion and the stagnation, Vicky is offered one potential reprieve. Just as Moonlight uses alternating colours and hues, in a sublime scene Vicky travels to a film festival in Yubari, her salvation taking the form of a small town buried under blankets of brilliant white snow. Reflecting light differently – not what glows or is obscured under a Taipei nightclub’s black-light – the snow causes the Vicky here to appear happy. At the same time, it remains symbolic of all that is ephemeral and evaporating.

The film’s final scene leaves the question of whether Vicky manages to break out of her repetitive cycle unresolved. Ending in Yubari, it concedes that it is valid to shuffle the scenes into a different order and for the film, technically all told in flashback, to still make sense. This complete, cumulative fragility gives Millennium Mambo a hypnotic quality, the ambient opening – lit from above, the picture literally flickering, coming-and-going – demonstrating how a film that takes place mostly by night remains positively translucent.

Millennium Mambo is a time capsule of these tender years, at once ghost story, souvenir and SOS signal. Like delayed rays of light from a dying star, the film is a transmission from a time that no longer exists. Not compatriots but cut from the same cloth, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Barry Jenkins bring their respective constellations into perfect alignment, creating two brilliant panoramic character studies with few easy epiphanies.

Millennium Mambo is screening alongside the debut shorts of Mia Hansen-Løve as part of the Barbican’s Chronic Youth Film Festival in London on Sunday 19 March. For more info visit barbican.org.uk

Published 7 Feb 2017

Tags: Barry Jenkins Hou Hsiao-Hsien

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