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Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "Millennium Mambo."

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  • Fred Camper
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 16, 2008
      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.

      Fred Camper
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