Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Two dreamscapes reviewed here: Albert Serra’s Pacifiction opens this weekend at the Grand Illusion theater in Seattle; Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo returns to the Beacon. Here are notes on each; the latter was written (apparently) in 2004 for, I think, a short-lived magazine published by Landmark Theatres.
This may be the most beguiling critique of colonialism ever made, partly because it does so many other things, many of them mysterious. Slow in its rollout, stunningly designed as a visual and aural experience, and shot in Tahiti, Albert Serra’s Pacifiction creates enchantment from its earliest moments, as a group of French Navy officers (presumably from a submarine) arrive in a port in French Polynesia, the sky coral-pink and the air humming with island noises. Much of the film revolves around a local commissioner named De Roller (Benoit Magimel), a buttery presence, flatulent with platitudes as he balances the presumed demands of his European bosses with the simmering discontent of the indigenous locals. Magimel’s performance is a wonderful balancing act, placidly spewing out complacent bonhomie and occasionally jangling with existential fear, locked into his elegant cream-colored suit and tropical shirts like a cartoon character doomed to forever wear the same clothes.
Despite the film’s many longueurs, it is never dull, partly because, like a good genre film—which it definitely is not—it posits a handful of questions in the early going. One is whether the French government may be preparing to revive nuclear tests at a nearby atoll; De Roller (weirdly funny name) spends much of the film trying to find out whether this is true, although, as in a frustration dream, he rarely gets an answer and thus is perpetually in the dark. Another mystery is the oddball Admiral (Marc Susini) who drinks too much at the nightclub, where many druggy scenes unfold, and another is a transgender woman, Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), who works at the hotel and is skilled at becoming indispensable to the commissioner.
A lot of things are dangled without resolution in this film, leading to the distinct feeling that this island, and the bar where everybody hangs out, are not merely operating as a metaphor for the trauma of colonialism as a purgatory where everybody has to keep acting out the colonial past. Time passes in a different way here; the film sometimes generates actual suspense, sometimes slows to allow for a pure cinematic coup like De Roller’s jet-ski jaunt across the offshore waves.
There’s a poignant undercurrent to this scathing-yet-sumptuous film, which is the way it becomes clear that De Roller, despite his immense privilege and lack of self-awareness (in one scene he instructs the local performers in the hotel’s tourist show in how better to portray their own allegedly native dance), is a useless tool himself. We can’t approve of him, but we can feel for him—an unexpected byproduct of Serra’s strange, hypnotic film.
When Millennium Mambo premiered at Cannes in 2001, the time was ripe for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s coronation. The Taiwanese director had wowed film critics and adventurous festivalgoers with the rigorous mise-en-scene and gorgeous density of movies such as City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, and his previous picture, Flowers of Shanghai, had rightly been acclaimed a masterpiece (“I regard Flowers of Shanghai as perfect, and one of the most beautiful films ever made”—thus Phillip Lopate, in Film Comment).
Well, nobody’s perfect—at least not twice in a row. Even to its champions, Millennium Mambo defied expectations, with its stubbornly mod setting, vacuous protagonist, and insistent techno-beat soundtrack. It seemed Hou had encroached on Wong Kar-Wai’s turf—lost youth in the urban jungle—but kept his own trademark style of slow-burning scenes and elegant long takes.
Three years after its debut, it’s a little easier to appreciate this difficult but rewarding movie. We follow Vicky (Shu Qi), a nightclub hostess, as she shifts her affections from a jealous good-for-nothing (Tuan Chun-hao) to a dashing gangster (Jack Kao). Not much happens, and the sole source of drama comes when Vicky travels to snowy Hokkaido for a weirdly enchanting final act. But this is barely a narrative picture at all; think of it as a moody sister to Morvern Callar, sharing that film’s aimless young heroine and intoxicating procession of lush colors and throbbing music. That Millennium Mambo is related as Vicky’s flashback, recalled from ten years in the future, gives it a wry, sad, slightly amused tone. Hou seems to be suggesting that even a period of empty youthful floundering might look charming, seen through time’s distancing lens.
February 17, 2023
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.