Taiwanese cinema grandmaster Hou Hsiao-hsien turned sixty-eight the day I wrote this, a melancholy day if only for the fact that he’s been working on his wuxia martial arts period piece, “The Assassin” for five years, neglecting the masterpieces of observation of the modern world he could have been making. The Siskel’s essential six-film 35mm retrospective of his work continues with the still-modern fragrance of “Millennium Mambo” (2001) and the sorrowful play of history, memory and performance in “Good Men, Good Women” (1995). In a 2002 public conversation transcribed by Rouge magazine, Hou described what he considers “the burden of existence”: “In this age, which is absolutely modern and individualistic, there is this so-called ‘unbearable lightness of being.’ But essentially it’s still very heavy. This lightness of an individual’s love and feelings, however, has to deal with a world that’s as hard as a rock. The drastically new genre of contemporary cinema is basically an attempt to find a form to deal with this heavy burden on the individual’s love and feelings, or simply the burden on his existence. Isn’t our existence an endless marching along under suppression?”
There’s tenderness in Hou’s work, all of which is mysterious in its rich emotional affect no matter how much you analyze it. I’ll try to typify it through the extended opening shot of “Millennium Mambo,” which seems like ancient history and yet completely present tense. I’ve watched the opening sequence-shot of this surreally beautiful masterpiece dozens of times. While the movie’s narcotic rhythms and repetitions and sudden bursts of beauty, in composition, music, gesture and perspective, are gratifying throughout, the opening is what stays. The entire movie is there: a voiceover from a character we do not ever see situates the story we are about to witness at the turn of the new century while we watch, in ever-so-slowed motion, Hou’s muse, model-actress Qi Shu running along a pedestrian walkway, practically skipping, aware of the camera as it slinkily Steadicams behind her, turning her head, flinging her long, black hair, smiling slightly at our witness as we are told the story took place long, long ago, yet we are in this fleeting moment, this present of youthful feminine beauty while the movie’s low-key techno theme begins to pulse. She does skip, down stairs at the end of the shot, the camera staying at its higher perspective, and the instant she is about to leave the frame? A cut to black and the simmering apparition of the main title in English. A lifetime, lifetimes, packed into one shot of a woman in her youth, smiling, smoking, laughing, skipping, disappearing. (Ray Pride)
“Millennium Mambo” plays at Siskel April 17 and 19; “Good Men, Good Women” April 26 and 29.