Now it is time to have a look at one of the classic 1980’s Hong Kong films, a Ghost story that doesn’t have any scares, but more a poem about love and sacrifice, and about how things change.
In “Rouge” we meet courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui) who is a popular attraction in her 1930’s Bordello. She is met and courted by rich Chan (Leslie Cheung), and a love affair blooms. Sadly, he is from a rich and important family, and his Mother does not approve of their potential marriage (although she does not mind their relationship, maybe as his concubine). He sacrifices his future for her, becoming a lowly member of a Cantonese Opera Troupe, but as they get more desperate to be together they hatch a plan to commit suicide together, in order to be together in the next life. We then move forward fifty years to 1980’s Hong Kong, where the ghost of Fleur appears to Yeun (Alex Man) asking to place an advert in his paper to get in contact with Chan. Yeun and his girlfriend An Chor (Emily Chu) are initially taken aback by the appearance of this ghost in their lives, but they soon warm to her and her story, and attempt to help her meet her long lost lover. When it becomes clear that Chan did not die in the suicide bid, they try and track him down. However, can a love from fifty years ago still be strong, and moreover, which is worse, half a century in Hell, or the same time living an unfulfilled life?
Director Stanley Kwan was at the time one of the few openly gay men in the Hong Kong Cinema scene, and is famous for making very female-centric movies, and this is no exception. What he crafts here is something rather exceptional. He takes the character of Fleur, and gives us someone who through her calm controlled demeanour lights up the screen, though always tinged with great regret and sadness. Most interestingly he is able to contrast two very different times, never saying one is better than the other, just that even in a short period of time like fifty years, how everything can change.
He educates us subtly in many of the ways of the past, telling us such things as why Chan is known as 12th Master (He is actually the second son, but they added 10 to make the family seem bigger), or how Courtesan were like local celebrities (even having their own newspaper describing their lives and affairs). He compares and contrasts the two relationships, showing how Fleur and Chan are kept apart by societal mores, whilst Yeun and An Chor are living together quite openly while not being married. There are delightful little touches such as the tiny scene where Fleur and An Chor share lipsticks from the different times. But not once does he say one era is better than the other, times have just changed, they are different. When the film was released, the handover is still over a decade away, but there is that sense that Kwan is talking about how things change, some for the good, some for the better.
Mui owns the film, even when we discover that she may have been a little more than an equal partner in the attempted suicide, we don’t ever want to blame her, or hate her. Leslie Cheung doesn’t quite get the screen time I expected, but even watching as a straight man, I don’t think he has ever been more handsome and charming. Emily Chu also shines as a thoroughly modern woman, the career girl, who also is not afraid to speak her mind. I loved some of the talk between Yeun and Ah Chor a lot, they had brave conversations about how to relate their relationship to that of Fleur and Chan, being totally honest about how they would not go so far as kill themselves for each other.
The film ends on the saddest of note. the lovers do find each other, but there is not happy reunion. Mui may have spend fifty years in Hell, but Chan ended his life as a hopeful bit-part extra in local cinema, without the support of his family, and addled by his opium addiction. It is utterly heartbreaking, but in keeping of the ideas and themes that the film is exploring. If I have a tiny criticism of the movie, it is that Cheung is buried under so much pretty unconvincing makeup, that he can’t really express his failure in life via acting.
The film has an added poignancy. as Mui and Cheung were linked throughout life. The came to prominence in the same year, and this was not the only time the two real-life friends acted opposite each other. More tragically, they both lost their lives in the same year (Cheung by his own hand, Mui to Cancer). Which in some ways makes the totally tragic ending even more touching. Highly Recommended.