Film Reviews Mint Chinese Film Festival

Review: Millennium Mambo

  • Release year: 2001
  • Director: Hsiao-Hsien Hou.
  • Producers: T’ien-wen Chu, Éric Heumann and Hsiao-Hsien Hou.
  • Screenplay by: T’ien-wen Chu.
  • Cinematographer: Ping Bin Lee.
  • Music by: Toshihiro Hanno, Kai-yu Huang and Giong Lim.

Synopsis: a girl gets tangled in a very toxic relationship while she’s still a teenager. Ten years later, she may have found the strength to get out of it.

Shotgun Commentary: beautiful film full of heavy truths that are hard to swallow.

A girl walking through a covered bridge looking back. Frame from Millennial Mambo, chosen for the review of said film.
Fig. 1. Vicky (Shu Qi) on her way to meet her friends.
Source: Millennium Mambo (Hsiao-Hsien Hou, 2001).


Millennium Mambo is a beautiful and tragic story that makes many women feel seen. The experience of being trapped in a horrible relationship without even knowing how or when it happened is appallingly common. It is an epidemic that affects a huge part of the female population in the world. This is where the importance of stories like this resides. They bring forth the voice of countless victims of the spider web that is gender-based violence.

The airless truth

Vicky (Shu Qi) meets Hao-Hao (Chun-hao Tuan) early in life. He is the reason she misses her highschool exam and can’t go to university. This takes an incredible toll in her life, although she is not quite aware of it at the time. Slowly but surely, Hao-Hao limits her options in life to become her one and only answer for everything.

Unhappy with that, he keeps strangling her existence, erasing any type of privacy or self-respect she might have. He projects his own insecurities onto her without any restraint, leading her to leave him several times. From an outside point of view, the fact that she keeps coming back seems inexplicable. However, the more you watch her behaviour, the more you understand.

Frozen in time

The film successfully shows how Vicky has been kept from maturity through manipulation and emotional abuse. This leads her to be clueless and frightened at the thought of growing up, despite her wanting to do so. We can see her desire in the fact that she doesn’t want to go back to her hometown. She wants to be an adult, but she’s never had the chance to grow up. She is scared of leaving Hao-Hao, the only person she has been counting on for years.

Fig. 2. Hao-Hao (Chun-hao Tuan) sniffing Vicky.
Source: Millennium Mambo (Hsiao-Hsien Hou, 2001).

The stale childhood that still lives in her leads her to Jack (Jack Kao) and the two brothers from Hokkaido (Ko Takeuchi and Jun Takeuchi). The first is a mature man who takes care of her, perpetuating in a way her child state by becoming a sort of father figure. The latter do the same by becoming brother figures that live in a safe place where she can just run away and be taken care of, far from the paws of her abusive boyfriend.

The ending is as gorgeous as the film itself. The audience will never know key information about several characters, but Vicky’s return to her “brothers” is certain, thus providing the possibility that they will help her grow into an adult. However, the ending is very open, the viewers never know for sure, and there is immense beauty in that since it perfectly reflects the uncertainty of real life.

Conflicting feelings

The use of attractive aesthetics clashes with the story that is being told. In this sense, it almost romanticises Vicky’s life, visually sending the opposite message that the narrative seems to want to get at. While a charming presentation is always welcome in a film, sometimes the style and the point of view argue with the message of the plot. In this case, the voyeur point of view in which the audience is put, paired with the pleasing design of the scenes, hinder more than emphasise the horror of the Vicky’s situation.

As spectators, we watch Vicky from an outsider perspective. The camera more spies on her than understands her, putting the viewers in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they too are taking advantage of her. If this idea is further developed, it could also be understood as a way of perturbing the audience into a stage of ache in which the message is more intensely assimilated, which would be a clever way to stage the movie.

Emotional intensity

The performances contribute quite nicely to the narrative. The characters show their personality not only through actions and words, but also in the sounds they emit. This solidifies the theory that Vicky is stuck in a child phase since she yells and whines like a small kid. Additionally, it also adds another layer of that “beast dimension” that lives within Hao-Hao, who emits growls and sniffs Vicky like an animal during his worst moments of violence and jealousy.

Considering all aspects of Millennium Mambo, it could be perceived as both a commentary and a perpetuation of the Victorian fascination for female suffering. However, this does not, in any way, diminish its value as a beautiful piece full of meaning, nor the importance of shining a light over gender-based violence with preventive, informative and denunciating purposes.

Advice to take from this movie:

  • A man is not your responsability, if they can’t live without you, it is THEIR problem, not yours.
  • Abuse in a relationship is like cheating, no matter what they promise, chances are it is only going to get worse.
  • A partner is not a child, if they need taking care of, they should go to their parents, it is not your job to do so.
Fig. 3. Vicky serving wine while Jack (Jack Kao) cooks.
Source: Millennium Mambo (Hsiao-Hsien Hou, 2001).

What’s your take? Have you watched Millennium Mambo? What do you think of Vicky’s struggle? This film was screened in the 2024 Mint Chinese Film Festival in Keswick, so if you like it you might want to keep your eyes peeled for their next edition!

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