Vicky (Shu Qi) is a young Taiwanese woman living in Taipei with her unemployed and violently jealous boyfriend, Hao-hao (sometimes referred to as Tuan Chun-hao, which is also the name of the actor playing him). In order to pay their rent, Vicky starts working in a hostess bar, where she meets Jack (Jack Kao), a middle-aged mobster with whom she falls in love. When Jack’s underworld activities oblige him to suddenly visit Tokyo, Vicky follows but is unable to locate him.
That, in essence, is the story of Millennium Mambo (2001), the fourteenth feature directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. It may also be the least important thing about this masterpiece. Indeed, it wasn’t until the third viewing that I started to notice there even was a story. Until then, I had perceived the film as less a sequence of events than a series of emotions. Treating narrative as something that exists to one side of the work’s central thrust—not problematizing it in a modernist fashion, or exiling it in the manner of much experimental or avant-garde art, but rather deposing it from its usual privileged position—has long been a tactic of Hou’s. Yet only with his most recent film, The Assassin (2015), has many critics started remarking upon this tendency. The assumption seems to be that The Assassin’s narrative is hard to follow because it is so complex, involving multiple characters engaged in shadowy conflicts against an unfamiliar backdrop. Yet the problem of comprehension is also posed by Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1996) and Millennium Mambo, whose plots could hardly be simpler. In both these films (and, to a degree, in all of Hou’s mature work), those structural signposts our experiences with works of fiction have conditioned us to expect are conspicuous by their absence, obliging us to piece stories together from the fragments of available evidence. How do the characters relate to each other? Are they friends? Relatives? Connected by vaguely defined communal ties? Since the answers to these questions are not provided in a ready-made form, we must figure them out for ourselves by patiently observing how these individuals interact, much as we would if we were to encounter them in real life.
Even voiceovers that superficially seem to offer narratological clarification end up reinforcing the sense of mystery. Although Millennium Mambo takes place in 2001, the year it was made, Vicky’s third-person narration claims to issue from the year 2011, her “future” voice outlining “past” incidents over images of the “present.” Adding to the confusion, we often observe present-tense events that have already been the subject of Vicky’s past-tense narration. One might recall the voiceovers of Robert Bresson, with their emphasis on redundancy and repetition. Yet instead of Bresson’s closed systems, Hou offers us a fictional world that is totally open, one contemplated with the generosity and freedom of Jean Renoir. Hou plays with narrative not because he is interested in abstract intellectual puzzles, but because he wants us to abandon our lazy viewing habits and preconceptions, to see art, and that world beyond the cinema to which it refers, with fresh eyes. At times, it isn’t even clear what country we are in. Vicky’s journey to Japan is not communicated via the kind of shortcuts that usually signal such transitions; Hou does not show us, Vicky, realizing that she has been abandoned by Jack, making plans to follow him, traveling to Japan, or arriving at her destination. He simply cuts from Vicky sleeping on a sofa in Taipei to her walking along a street in Tokyo.
In traditional narrative art, everything exists for a “reason,” all mysteries are resolved, every question is answered. Hou, on the other hand, shies away from resolutions, often ending his films at points that are entirely arbitrary. It is worth noting that footage was shot for both Millennium Mambo and Café Lumière (2003) which would have allowed them to continue well past the points where they currently conclude. These are texts which could be indefinitely extended or drastically reduced without sacrificing their essential meaning. Much like life itself.
Needless to say, this is hardly an approach calculated to win widespread approval in an era dominated by postmodernist aesthetics, wherein ironic detachment is seen as the most desirable of all possible responses to any given situation. For if there is detachment in Hou’s work, it is a detachment that has no trouble existing alongside passionate involvement. And though Hou is finally starting to receive recognition outside cinephile circles (where he has long been regarded as one of the world’s most important auteurs), it’s a safe bet that he will never enjoy the trendy acclaim routinely given to Michael Haneke or the Coen brothers. One could hardly describe the films of Haneke or the Coens as functioning primarily on the emotional level—unless, of course, contempt and a sense of superiority are emotions one particularly values. Unlike these directors, Hou never judges his characters. This is why his refusal to play the narrative game is so consequential. We cannot dismiss his protagonists as good or bad, important or insignificant, smart or stupid, any more than we can tell precisely what role they play in the overall “story.” Their autonomy is respected alongside that of the viewer. Hou’s oeuvre belongs to one of the most important developments in contemporary cinema, whose finest products—Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel (1998), David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere (2010), Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (2014), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor (2015), Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)—contain narratives that exist mostly by implication, but emotions that are always crystal clear.