The arc for character in Hou’s work is one you become accustomed with. They progress through life while dealing with the tribulations and ever growing moral quandaries that the society they inhabit brings: the boy in Dust in the Wind (1986) who works from job to job in order to make way through a path he believes is set; the man seeking out the woman he once encountered in order to have a sense of fulfillment in Three Times (2005); the woman struggling with the ideology of a higher power while attempting to determine her own sense of self in The Assassin (2015). These are specific scenarios that through acceptance of the viewer provide insight into the universalities of a way in life.
It’s most fitting that Hou’s first film of the century, Millennium Mambo, is more of an anthesis for the auteur. The film examines the fleeting nature of Vicky (Shu Qi), a woman that lacks ambition for her life and places her values on whoever is willing, whether it be her “boyfriend” that constantly expects the worst of her or an older man that provides the illusion for a life that isn’t possible. The people that surround her seem to acknowledge her state by exemplifying her worst tendencies. It is clear, however, no matter how off putting these people may be to the viewer, they themselves have their own personal arc that is closed off from Vicky. They have goals, aspirations, and ideas, no matter how dubious. Vicky, on the other hand, would prefer to live only in the moment, as evidenced in the feverish opening sequence where she strolls down a neon-lit bridge and acts as if this is all there is to life. This sequence is accompanied by a voice over from Vicky fifteen years from now, informing us with the slightest melancholy of what’s to come.
Vicky’s life is built up of moments that are not defined by her: the “boyfriend” who is being questioned by the police; the older figure that constantly has to deal with the problems of his professional life. The beats are not a result from her, but from those that orbit around her. She has her place in the frame, but doesn’t make use of it. Hou’s camera captures these moments exquisitely, as expected, but one gets the sense that this appeal is all we and Vicky have, that this vibrant frame will soon dwindle and result into the melancholic happenings of the Vicky fifteen years from now.
If there’s one sequence of objective happiness, one that can provide her use in order to move forward, it’s not during the club sequences of Taipei or within the modern apartment of her “boyfriend,” but on the outskirts of town in Yubari, where film posters drape the walls and lush snow is covering every potential step. It’s the only time where Vicky is genuinely happy. She may not realize it at the time, but we do, and that’s what makes the moment where she imprints her face into a body of snow with the people she’s with all the more painful. It’s a moment that can only be temporary – destined to be erased by time and forever to be left as a memory. Vicky is greeted with a glimpse for what can be potentially beneficiary for her, but because she refutes the notion of one’s own self, she remains in the rut, waiting to return to the never-ending cycle of her city life.
It isn’t difficult to understand why Shu became Hou’s muse after making this film. She recalls the ways of Monica Vitti, where the star effortlessly adapts to the sensibility of the auteur, as if every gesture is not from direction but instinct. Often times with a specific voice, actors seem as if they’re on the verge of breaking. They can’t quite mesh with what the auteur is providing. Not so with Shu. She is everything the character needs to be. Illusive while being present. Gullible without seeming foolish. A woman that belongs on the edge of a new beginning.
Towards the end, Vicky is given an offer of false hope, one that initially remains clear with its intention to us but not her. Her reaction isn’t one of aggression when she realizes the motive, but solace. The possibility of something healthier this far into her life no longer seems likely, and she must accept where her actions have led her. We don’t judge her for her predicament, but acknowledge the notion that her position in life is an easy and initially desirable one to attain. The film’s closing moments revert back to the snowy scenery of Yubari. “Even years later, she still remembers it,” Vicky says in the voice over. Within the consecutive rhythm of her ennui infested life lied a moment of determination and meaning, only its impact to her wasn’t possible at the time. Where she is now, we don’t know, but the narration in third person, tone of voice, and motif in music leaves us with a possibility.