Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "Millennium Mambo."
- 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.