I saw Hou Hsiao-hsien's sublime Millenium Mambo a couple of times recently. I'm trying to write a post about it but meanwhile please read Fred Camper's very inspiring a_film_by post about the film. With some comments below.
Thanks to Doc Film at the University of Chicago for showing Hou Hsiao-Hsien's great great "Millennium Mambo."
Something I have been reminded of in recent years, in part through my former participation in the group a_film_by, is the extent to which many or most auteurists, rather than being open to any possible use of cinema, and any possible worldview, in fact adhere to a particular brand of humanism. A film is respected for preserving some Bazinian sense of "reality," and for reflecting warmth and "generosity" toward its characters. A film that appears, even superficially, to regard its characters with some degree of dislike or contempt is somehow judged inferior. What many auteurists look for is warm, wonderful, human dramas in which an interesting and engaging story is enhanced by fine acting and sensitive direction. This is a particular view of the value of human beings and human emotions, one that I don't even necessarily agree with. Nor do I think of empathetic (or, one might say, "escapist") involvement with characters and stories is necessarily in and of itself a good thing.
I have always been opposed to the imposition of any particular bias or taste on cinema. What makes a film great is not whether one agrees with its vision. In my view, this perspective is ultimately a narcissistic one, looking for art to mirror the self, and one that disregards the real power of art to imbue an artist's particular vision with "truth." A major point of art to is to allow us to see visions other than one's own.
All of this leads me to Hou's "Millennium Mambo," which can hardly be said to show warmth and generosity toward its characters. No, it doesn't treat them with contempt either. But what seemed most amazing to me about this film is the way the particular and unique qualities of Hou's close, cramped spaces (which includes snow surrounding a road outdoors) undercut our "natural" perceptions of characters as complex beings with autonomous emotional lives, seemingly rendering the humanist notions of the individual and of individual freedom irrelevant. It is as if for Hou the turn of the millennium also announces the death of the self, at least in the old sense. Humans are not spirits free to make wise decisions or tragic cases when they make poor ones; we are shadows, encased by culture and by thumping music. This is not a Langian trap, one that allows for some nobility (as in Bannion's quest in "The Big Heat"), but a more postmodern one.
But there's more. Hou's cramped spaces don't simply entrap; they also expand. That's perhaps the most amazing and beautiful effect of the film, the way that small areas seem to lead outward, sprawling, spreading, connecting to everything else as if making a continuous ether, creating a vastness that itself prevents characters from becoming focal points. Indeed, neither "entrap" nor "expand" are especially useful concepts here.
I thought of Dreyer, and I thought of Mizoguchi, as being vaguely related, but in those more humanist filmmakers, characters' bodies can at times be emotional and moral loci (the close-up of the father speaking to his young son just before departure in "Sansho Dayu"; O'Haru's receding shadow at the end of "The Life of O'Haru"), however qualified. Not so in Hou. His characters are "mere" points of light within a much larger context in which "even" an out of focus background area seems of equal importance. In fact, I can recall no film that uses those out of focus backgrounds that result from certain kinds of tight closeups so actively, so poetically. But it's not just the "backgrounds." What I'm trying to get at with "expand" is a kind of "spreading" effect in which every object that seems as if it might be a point of interest seems connected to every other part of a frame in a way that spreads "defuses" the power of any one point throughout the whole. Individual actions and feelings and quests are thus curiously devalued, and the film's elegiac feeling seems to be in part an acknowledgement of that.
"Humanist" values are hinted at only in the narration, and in the film's two times - which imply a loss of the autonomous self.
There are lots of things here that can't be stated any better than Fred does but I think it should be noted that Millennium Mambo is one of the darkest Hou films. There is the possibility of an escape, a possibility of an individual self, together with shared mutual love in many of his other films, from The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983) to Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007).
While Jack in Millennium Mambo wears a shirt saying, horrifyingly, "Extinction is Forever - Las Vegas", Simon in ballon rouge wears a shirt saying "CHANGE THE WORLD", in capitals.