Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui star in one of Hong Kong cinemas finest moments: in a word, magical…
In 1930s Hong Kong, a wealthy young heir Chan Chen-Pang or ‘Master 12’ (Leslie Cheung, A Better Tomorrow I & II, Days Of Being Wild, Farewell My Concubine) falls for high-class courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui, Heroic Trio, Behind the Yellow Line, Miracles) in the optimum dens of Hong Kong. Falling deeply in love they plan to start a new life together, but Chan’s family are not at all happy about the pairing.
Over 50 years later and not looking a day older, Fleur appears in a newspaper office wanting to put an ad in the classifieds. Not able to afford the ad, she begins to follow reporter Yuen (Alex Man, Hong Kong 1941, Young Bruce Lee, The Bounty), eventually revealing that she is dead, returned from hell to look for her beloved Chan, who promised to meet her there.
As Yuen and his girlfriend Chu (Emily Chu, A Better Tomorrow, Heart of Dragon, Witch from Nepal) agree to help Fleur found out what happened to Chan, their tragic tale is told in flashback.
At a point when Hong Kong cinema was defining itself in terms of the so-called ‘bullet ballet’ action of John Woo on the A Better Tomorrow series and the high-flying ‘wire-fu’ of Ching Siu-tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story (all of which starred Leslie Cheung), not to mention the perilous stuntwork of Jackie Chan on Project A and Police Story, Stanley Kwan’s more sedate film could hardly have been more different.
Masterfully directed with a evocative score by Michael Lai Siu-Tin and Tang Siu-Lam, there are no special effects or kinetics in Kwan’s film, but instead considered pacing and sensuous photography (despite being produced by Jackie Chan). Adapting from her own novel, Lillian Lee Pik-Wah and scriptwriter Tai An-Ping Chiu bring intelligence to the screenplay that allows the film to work on so many levels: from the fated Romeo and Juliet-style romance, to comment on a changing face of Hong Kong.
As Fleur travels through contemporary Hong Kong she remembers great theatres where shopping arcades now stand. Greatly abetted by sumptuous costume and production design by Piu Yeuk-Muk (Centre Stage, Red Rose White Rose, Lust, Caution) and Horace Ma Gwong-Wing (Police Story Part II, Once Upon a Time in China and America, Drug War, Blind Detective) that beautifully bring the period to life. (Ironically, now many viewers might well feel just as nostalgic for the Hong Kong of the 80s.) In this almost unrecognisable Hong Kong, when Fleur is presented with a can of Coca-Cola, she treats it with bewilderment and disdain in equal measures.
That our contemporary couple work in a newspaper office seems like a tip of the hat to the Hollywood romantic comedies of the 40s and 50s. More impressive is how Kwan alludes to the stars musical careers, particularly Mui, without overshadowing the film in the slightest. And it’s no coincidence that an aged Chan ends up working on the set of a ghostly wuxia film not unlike A Chinese Ghost Story; Fleur’s scorn for such ridiculous ghosts lampooning Cheung’s own appearance in that film just a few months before.
Such knowing self-reference is common in Hong Kong movies. Indeed, Kwan would have carried that on with another film in which he intended Anita Mui to star, Centre Stage about the life of Ruan Ling Yu, as Mui’s life echoed that of the tragic 1930s Shanghai starlet. (In the end Maggie Cheung ended up taking the lead role.)
But at its heart, Kwan balances the melodrama of Fleur and Chan’s romance with the rather more everyday relationship of Chu and Yuen. Through Kwan’s eyes the tragedy of Fleur’s love gets coloured with a more pragmatic, Hong Konger attitude. Chu and Yuen admit that though they love each other very much, they wouldn’t consider committing suicide to be together. In truth that makes their relationship no less tender or valid. The rhetoric that ‘life is precious’ takes on greater meaning when considering the tragedy of the lead actors in real life, who both passed away within a year of each other.
The casting is sublime, with both leads seeming pitch perfect in their roles. Baby-faced Leslie Cheung seems wide-eyed and innocent as Chan, despite his frequenting optimum dens, against Anita Mui’s more worldly and experienced Fleur. The onscreen chemistry between them is breath taking. Between Kwan’s direction and cinematographer Billy Wong (The Sword, Esprit D’amour, Dream Lovers, Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain) measured photography, the typically reserved and tame love scenes of Hong Kong cinema have hardly felt as sensuous, with every undone button resounds with passion. The impression this left on Hong Kong cinema, and particularly Wong Kar-wai and films like Days Of Being Wild and In The Mood For Love, is deeply felt.
Fleur’s character is far less romanticised about how difficult their life will be together, and how rare it is for someone of her background to find true love. The film rebooted Mui’s career, which had faltered after an award-winning performance in Behind the Yellow Line. For Cheung it cemented his position as one of Asia’s leading talents, his appearance as an actor in a Chinese Opera predicts his role in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine, itself another Lillian Lee adaptation.
Such themes of ghosts with unfinished business were by no means unusual in Hong Kong film. Lillian Lee had already contributed to ghost stories like Life After Life in 1981, and Ringo Lam had enjoyed some success on his debut feature film Esprit D’amour in 1983, but rarely had they been so well executed. Rouge is credited with kick-starting interest in nostalgic films, while many adaptions of Lillian Lee’s works would follow, including Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior (1989), Green Snake (1993), Temptation of a Monk (1993) and Dumplings (2004).
Truly one of Hong Kong cinema’s finest moments, Rouge won various awards in Asia and at international festivals, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress at the 1989 Hong Kong Film Awards. Seeing this as part of a season on Channel 4 in the late 80s is one of the reasons I got into Asian film in the first place. Over 20 years later that appeal remains undiminished, Rouge is still simply magical…