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Hou factor makes 'Mambo' worth trying

"Millennium Mambo" is both something a little new for Hou Hsiao-hsien (a rare ultramodern youth flick/soap opera) and more of the same (time seamlessly folded and then stretched until it starts to warp; camera placement so unshowy that it borders on lackadaisical).

Of course, what's old and new with Hou is likely moot. If the world's museums and independent movie houses are plump with Hou retrospectives, most of his astounding movies, from "Dust in the Wind" (1986) to "Flowers of Shanghai" (2000), have yet to get proper distribution here. While I'm not ready to call the Brattle's weekend run of "Millennium Mambo" exactly proper, I'd be crazy to complain about the brevity of its stay.

Only half as ambitious and three-fourths as long as Hou's recent films, "Millennium Mambo," made in 2001, is set at the close of the last century and focuses on Taipei youth culture. The central nightclub, called Spin, is bathed in vague blue light, and is alive with the electronic heartbeat of dime-store techno. It's generic too, but in a way that bears a closer look. The motion is slow enough to become mournful, while timidity and discomfort are the calm before the emotional storm.

Written by Chu Tien-wen, "Millennium Mambo" recalls the unease that crept over the world's youth back at the turn of the last century. It isn't manifested here in curdled fate, but in sex, drugs, video games, and violence. Taiwanese starlet Shu Qi (last seen stateside in 2002's "The Transporter") plays the alternately disaffected and unhinged Vicky, who winds up on one end of that sex-drugs recipe or another. The story is not so much about what Vicky does but with whom she does it. And most of the time it's with Hao-hao (Tuan Chun-hao), her topsy-turvy roommate who doubles disastrously as a boyfriend. These selfish characters provide a terrific contrast with the tragic young lovers in "Dust in the Wind."

As an introduction to the rhythm of this relationship, we're treated to an act of amour. Vicky comes home to their slovenly apartment, the fumes of a previous spat still clouding the air, and is greeted by Hao-hao, who starts in with some halfhearted fumbling. She washes a dish, lights a cigarette, drinks from a tumbler, takes a seat, and then rolls her eyes, all as he paws her. This is highly unromantic comedy, and like the name of the nightclub at its center, "Millennium Mambo" moves in circles, like an exquisitely broken record. We move back and forth through the months, from the bum times to the fun times and back again.

Hou's elliptical brilliance usually guarantees a return to an old scene or idea with a deepened appreciation of the characters and circumstances. But the effect thins rather than deepens this movie. Recent millennium-minded movies such as "Eureka" and "All About Lily Chou-chou" pulled off the malaise, but Hou has no use for their apocalyptic natures. If this movie's frame of mind is the emotional quiet of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, it's naughty young derelicts are often acting in one of Nagisha Oshima's more unhinged pictures. The experience is like watching a monster truck turned loose on a tea garden.

Still, if "Millennium Mambo" is the only chance to see Hou Hsaio-hsien's work at a movie theater, you'd better take it. Who knows when it will happen again?

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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