Millennium Mambo (2001)
I've been meaning to watch this more or less since it came out - Shu Qi films don't generally languish on the shelf for long but, somewhat like Made in Hong Kong, I didn't know what sort of experience I would have so I could never decide it was the right time to watch it (and my only other Hou Hsiao-Hsien experience, Flowers Of Shanghai, was not a particularly fond memory).
So, what sort of film is Millennium Mambo? It is astutely named, very much a product of its time, documenting that precise moment with a curious nostalgia, thanks to the conceit that it is being narrated by the main character from 10 years in her future.
The long shadow of Wong Kar-Wai's popularity falls over it, with its fractured narrative and dazzling visuals, but Hou is more clinical, documenting his characters' lives but keeping his distance, Well, it is one character in particular whose life is documented - Vicky, as she recalls a handful of important events from a time when she was young, beautiful and completely without purpose.
Much of the first half of the film is taken up by her toxic relationship with a deadbeat loser she can't seem to leave... but then she does, and he is barely mentioned again.
Beyond "Vicky" it's hard to pin the film down, there's no particular theme that unifies it or arc that it follows - it goes wherever she goes. Luckily Shu Qi delivers such a captivating performance that it's easy to follow along. Hou wasn't quite the first to see her potential beyond "bouncy sex kitten", but he was perhaps the first to trust her to carry his entire film on her shoulders. The long takes and loosely staged scenes demand a powerful commitment, and she definitely rose to the occasion.
It's a hard film to rate on first viewing, I suspect there is plenty more to be mined from it on a rewatch.