With a string of films in the 1980s and '90s, Taiwan's Hao Hsiao-Hsien leapt into the ranks of world cinema's most acclaimed filmmakers. But his work ... A Time to Live and A Time to Die; Goodbye South, Goodbye ... rarely reached American theaters. One reason was surely their contemplative quality, often expressed in long takes of a single landscape or a group of his characters simply hanging out.
Hao's recent, and very first, theatrical release in Pittsburgh, the lovely Three Times, likewise dissatisfied many. But whether you liked Three Times and want more, or were disappointed and seek something more accessible, your ticket is this earlier feature, 2001's Millennium Mambo. Shu Qi, the lovely and talented actress who played three roles in Three Times, here plays just one: Vicky, a bar dancer never quite confronting a never-quite-over abusive relationship with a petty thief named Hao-Hao.
Many of Hao's films (and one segment of Three Times) are set in the 1950s or '60s, in the small-town Taiwan of his youth, and have a nostalgic cast. Millennium Mambo takes place in a modern metropolitan Taiwan, much of it in nightclubs where Hao, a supreme visual stylist, takes maximum advantage of Lucite partitions, rich artificial colors and diffuse unnatural light. The pace is faster, and many scenes begin disorientingly, with a stylized blurring into abstraction, or with reflections of his characters we see before we're shown the characters themselves.
If that sounds as though Hao is depicting the fragmentizing effects of modern life ... well, sure. But he's more interested in emotions, and he brilliantly builds Vicky's world by observing her and the men she knows. Hao-Hao coerces sex, and routinely goes through her purse; two Japanese brothers romp with her in the snow; and Jack (Jack Kao), a dignified middle-aged gangster, takes a liking to her and eventually takes her in.
Behavior, reflected in the smallest gesture, is what counts. And so a scene in which Vicky wakes up at Jack's and simply peeks in the fridge, while he chants a Buddhist sutra off screen, resonates as strongly as does a marvelously staged and shot shoving match between Hao-Hao and some bar guys. As well as anyone making movies, Hao captures the rhythms of everyday life, the emotional portent of seemingly random moments.