Rouge (胭脂扣)

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Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui. Two names which have been synonymous with Hong Kong popular culture for as long as I can remember.  As a little kid growing up in HK, I guess I did not ever really know them, and yet I was enveloped in a great affection for these two lost stars, a fascination that seems to only have strengthened over the years. As the 10th anniversary of their untimely deaths draws closer, I thought I would share with you a favourite film of mine: Stanley Kwan’s Rouge 1988.

Rouge begins in the heat of 1930s Hong Kong; a sweltering society swiftly approaching modernity. We meet the elegant courtesan Fleur and the charming playboy 12th Master Chan Chen-Pang. The love between them, at first light and unassuming, rapidly grows deep and passionate. Shunned by disapproving family members, they are driven into a suicide pact, determined to meet each other in the afterlife.

We then cut abruptly to present-day Hong Kong, some 50 years after the original tale. The beautiful Fleur has resurfaced (literally) to find her long-awaited lover. She decides to place a missing person ad in a local paper, eventually befriending an employee and his girlfriend. The plot, part Romeo and Juliet, part traditional Chinese ghost story, is one that we’ve seen frequently. And yet Rouge‘s ingenious execution showcases the Hong Kong art film at its most brilliant, making it a truly distinctive piece of cinema.

When pondering over Rouge, it is the performances of Anita and Leslie that are first called to mind. Despite his smaller role, Cheung is mesmerizing as the wealthy gentlemen caught between his family, fear and thrilling love for an unsuitable woman. There is, however, no doubt that it is Anita Mui’s Fleur who particularly shines (or rather hauntingly glows) in the film. Floating through the streets of 80s HK, Anita brings an understated and tragic vulnerability to her heartbroken character. Her seamless lucidity, her hopeless innocence in a familiar yet frighteningly foreign world; all this is conveyed through gorgeously simple expressions of the silent Hollywood tradition.

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It is the atmospheric cinematography though that first draws the casual viewer into the foreign world of Fleur and Chen-Pang. Slow and deliberate, the camera captures what the naked eye cannot. Their doomed love, while wildly dramatic, resonates deeply with the modern viewer. It’s a surreal kind of love, magnified by the mystery and desolation of a smoke-filled opium den; the kind of passion that one dares not even think of.

An interesting aspect that is often passed over is the photography of 1980s Hong Kong. Tall and cool, it starkly contrasts with the rich romanticism of the pre-war years. Similarly, the fiery love of Fleur and Chen-Pang is juxtaposed with the mellow affection of our heroine’s bumbling keeper and his girlfriend. I believe these contradictions, this recurring theme of oppositions, to be the most important aspect of the film.

With tradition and old convention long abandoned, we recognise that our heroes from another time simply do not belong in this new world. Fleur, who has been waiting faithfully for over 50 years, is, in one sense, the lesser victim. Chan Chen-Pang, the handsome young man, witnesses the downfall of not only himself but of his beloved society. Moreover, he lives in perpetual unhappiness; reminded always of his deep regret and guilt.

Rouge is a beautiful film, effortlessly drifting between mystery and drama; it is even a little humourous at times. It should be remembered today as an example of great filmmaking, haunting and fluid like an abstract dream. Finally, the ending of Rouge, acts as the thrilling crescendo of the entire piece. As Fleur bids farewell to Chen-Pang for the last time, acting, cinematography and music come together perfectly to bring the story to its tragic conclusion.

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