Lin Xinyi, M.A. student, National Taiwan University Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature
Released in 2001, director Hou Xsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo is set in the year 2011. In voiceover narration, Vicky, the female protagonist, describes her life ten years earlier. At that time she was living with her idle and possessive boyfriend, Hao-hao. She constantly tells herself she will leave Hao-hao when her savings of $500,000 New Taiwan Dollars are spent, but time after time she comes back to him. Then Vicky meets Jack in a nightclub; Jack is a considerate man, and doesn’t coerce her to sleep with him. But will this relationship open the door to a new future for Vicky?
Zhu Tianwen is director Hou’s screenwriter of choice. The feminine accents of Zhu’s writing occasionally intersect with mainstream masculine narratives and histories, the most celebrated example of which is 1989’s City of Sadness, a retelling of the 228 Incident in lyrical passages from the diary of Hiromi, the film’s female protagonist. In her short story “Fin de Siècle Splendor” Zhu further explores women’s issues, practicing what literary theorist Julia Kristeva called écriture feminine, or “feminine writing.” And in Millennium Mambo Zhu takes the same approach to screenwriting.
Vicky’s voiceover narration – looking back on the “now” of 2001 from 2011 – breaks the temporality and historical perspective of linear narrative. Indoor settings and discontinuous memories and events are juxtaposed to construct her relations with her family and her role in romantic relationships. Vicky has left home, and she subconsciously hopes to find a new home of her own, living first with Hao-hao, then Jack, and other men. Apart from this thread, the film treats the plot, characters, and events in a vague and impressionistic way, without a causal narrative. The story is moved forward by Vicky’s experiences, the disjointed timeline, and linked emotions – thus, the work could be called Taiwanese cinema’s classic example of feminine writing and the politics of the everyday.
Aside from these formal features, the film also highlights Zhu Tianwen’s concern for the plight of women. Vicky seems to flit between Hao-hao and Jack; in fact, she is constantly searching for a sense of freedom and belonging, but in a man’s world it is she who is often excluded or abandoned. At the end of the film, when Jack has not appeared, in the last long shot Vicky recalls a trip to snowy Japan. The beautiful landscape and fluttering birds seem to declare her thirst for freedom, echoing words from Zhu Tianwen’s short story “Fin de Siècle Splendor”: “One day, the world that was constructed by male theory and order will fall; through her sense of smell and memory of color she will survive and rebuild.”