In the magnificent opening shot to Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo, the film's impossibly beautiful heroine (Shu Qi) floats gracefully down a long, open-aired corridor as a techno beat grows from a steady pulse to an ecstatic thump. As photographed in shimmering fluorescent blue by Mark Lee Ping-bin (In The Mood For Love), who specializes in bold and vibrant colors, this fleeting moment out of time is electric, charged with the sensuality and freedom of being a young club kid in the 21st century. From there, the rest of the movie represents the long hangover after a brief high, broken only by a breathtaking interlude in snowy Hokkaido that throws Shu's insular, suffocating world into sharp relief. The first installment in a planned trilogy about youth culture, Millennium Mambo could just as well serve as a companion to Hou's masterful 1998 chamber piece Flowers Of Shanghai: In place of the earlier film's turn-of-the-century brothel, which trapped its glassy-eyed "flower girls" in an opiate hell, Millennium Mambo substitutes colorful, strobe-lit Taipei dance clubs and cramped two-room apartments. In both cases, Hou powerfully dictates the confining limits of his characters' environments, which forbid them from maturing and perhaps moving on to brighter destinations. Already a wilted hothouse flower when the film begins, Shu has lost her feeling for the ephemeral pleasures of dancing, drugs, and sex; when her longtime boyfriend Tuan Chun-hao anxiously ravishes her body in their first scene together, her attention is focused entirely on keeping a cigarette from extinguishing. Narrating in the third-person from 10 years later, a perspective that takes some getting used to, Shu recalls her tortured romance with the possessive Tuan, who went so far as to pull her out of high school in order to squelch her future prospects. As their relationship sours, Shu finds humbling work at a hostess bar, where she clings to an older low-level gangster (Kao Jack), who makes for a not-so-benevolent father figure. Though it's the first Hou film to receive any kind of theatrical distribution–in the past, his reputation has earned an almost mythic status on the festival circuit–Millennium Mambo is a resolutely minor work, so enveloped in ennui that it never gets past the surface of things. But those surfaces are remarkable: In lieu of sharp characterization or psychological insight, Hou and his cinematographer capture a memorably tactile feeling through sound and image, making it possible to access Shu's life in all its numbing vacuity. Recent years have produced a surfeit of navel-gazers about alienated Asian youths, but Millennium Mambo resonates on its techno-driven mood alone, which is as overwhelming in its own way as anything blown up to IMAX.
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