Thursday, May 31, 2007

Audio in Hou's Millennium Mambo

For all his (justly) celebrated mastery of the visual aspect of film, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 2001 picture Millennium Mambo gains much of its power from the director's strong understanding of the audio component of the medium. The two primary elements of the film's audio conception, a techno score and the narration of the lead character, alternate to create a hypnotic, repetitive effect. The film itself concerns the aimless life of a young woman, Vicky (Shu Qi) who lives in a Taipei apartment with her jealous boyfriend Kao Kao (Tuan Chun-Hao) and later becomes involved with a paternal gangster (Jack Kao). She alternates her time between disco clubs, the hostess bar where she works, and her apartment where she withstands Kao Kao's constant verbal grilling.

The techno soundtrack (provided by DJs Yoshihiro Hanno and Lim Giong) which runs throughout the picture creates the detached, dream-like atmosphere that defines the lives of the young characters. On one level a mood piece, the film gains much of this mood from the endlessly repetitive music. The wordless circularity of the score echoes the film's non-narrative structure and the drift of the characters' lives. Hou's shots often seem like an accompaniment to the music from which they take their cue, instead of the reverse. As Fergus Daly writes in his essay "On Four Prosaic Formulas Which Might Summarise Hou's Poetics," "Techno is so tied to the present, its function is precisely to take over the dancer's body, turning it into an automaton who exists in a pure 'thereness'". Whether dancing or staying at home, Hou's characters seem stuck in an eternal present and the music emphasizes this atemporality. The soundtrack is organically integrated into the work since the characters spend much of their time at disco clubs and while at home, Kao Kao's chief occupation seems to be DJing on his personal turntables.

Although the music plays frequently throughout the film, it alternates with many quieter moments. During many of these moments, the soundtrack is taken up by an ongoing narration which, while referring to Vicky in the third person, is read by Shu Qi and whose voice seems to belong to the protagonist. Hou underlines the aimlessness of Vicky's life by having her read the lines in a non-emphatic manner that suggests the lack of volition in her choices. As she explains how she ended up in her present situation, a description which stresses the lack of any conscious decision on her part, her even-toned voice-over emphasizes the passive drift that defines her life. The narrative itself often repeats certain phrases, such as her description of how she continually returns to Kao Kao and plans to leave him once she spends all her money, a description which opens the film and is repeated verbatim in the middle section and which further underscores the circular nature of her existence.

The film's conclusion takes place in a snow-filled landscape in Hokkaido, Japan, a setting that Vicky visits twice during the film and which provides a contrast, both in climate and mood, from her Taipei existence. The disco beats are largely absent from the Hokkaido segments, as a quieter aesthetic sensibility dominates the sections, suggesting an alternate path of existence for Vicky. In addition, the Hokkaido scenes take place largely out of doors, providing further contrast to the relentless interiority of the Taipei sections. (The Taipei scenes as well rely largely on a "hot" color scheme, taking advantage of reds and yellows, while the Hokkaido sections are dominated by whites and browns). As Hou fixes his camera on an unmoving snowscape, Vicky begins her final narration. As the narration repeats some of the verbal motifs of her previous voiceovers, suddenly the score returns, although in a more subdued manner. The narrative repetitions and disco beats bring the film full circle with the audio preserving the film's aesthetic unity and retaining its circular structure, even as the concluding visual image contrasts strongly with much of the rest of the work.


Unknown said...

Found your post through Google. You have some great observations! I just saw MM last night and was, as usual, completely captivated by Hou's camera and use of audio. Just had to get the opening track, "A Pure Person," the second I got home.

andrew schenker said...

Thanks, Yoshi. Glad you liked the post. Interestingly, MM was originally one of my least favorite Hou films, but with repeated exposure I found it really opened up into an incredibly rich cinematic world and what I found fascinating was that it was the audio as much as anything that was responsible.