Stanley Kwan‘s Rouge (Yinji kau, 1987) is part romance, part ghost story, part meditation on art and masks, and all gorgeous. It’s been elusive in Region 1 since I first caught it as a new release at the San Francisco International Film Festival, so it’s a pleasure to report that Criterion’s 4K digital restoration reveals a ravishing melodrama that still works.
I maintain that virtually all films have mirror scenes, which often occur in the first or last scene, even the first or last shot. Rouge can be Exhibit A for that subsection where the opening shot uses the camera as the mirror. The woman we’ll come to know as Fleur (Anita Mui Yim-fong), splendidly attired in front of equally colorful wallpaper, looks into the camera and applies her makeup and lipstick. In another shot, she’s relocated to the southeast corner of the image, as though the decorous background envelops and dwarfs her.
Rouge‘s first 20 minutes present a gloriously artificial and claustrophobic hotbed of colors and camera moves. The handsome young man called Twelfth Master (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing) ascends the stairs to a private party room inside the lavish multi-storied brothel where this action takes place in 1934 Hong Kong. In the room, he’s arrested by the sight and voice of Fleur, dressed in male garb and singing a sad, yearning opera song. In other words, his first bewitching sight of her is as a beautiful androgynous male. When he tries to join the song, she teases him as sentimental, to the crowd’s delight.
Adding to the enchantment of the scene are those smooth gliding camera movements. In a bonus interview in the June 2022 Criterion release, Kwan states that when he took over this existing project from a popular novel by Lilian Lee, screenwriter Chiu Kang-chien had scripted the camera moves as though he were directing. It’s the viewer’s fortune that Kwan took those notes to heart.
Both the lovers’ names are false and pretentious. Fleur was sold into prostitution at 16, and the girls take “pretty” names, in this case, a foreign name, for extra sophistication. We never know her by any other name. Twelfth Master, real name Chan Chen-pang, is a second son and an only child since his brother’s death, but it’s considered prosperous to have many sons. He’s the hope of his nouveau riche business family. His parents want him to marry an heiress, while he’d rather go into the disreputable career of acting, culturally regarded as little different from prostitution.
By a curious extension, the multiplicity of names or identities is a Hong Kong thing from living as a British colony separate from mainland China until 1997. People in the film industry commonly adopted western pseudonyms for English-language press. The convention is to choose a western Christian name and affix it to one’s surname, while one’s Chinese name begins with the surname and puts the given name after. So these actors are commonly known in English as Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Jackie Chan, etc., while another convention combines both forms: Anita Mui Yim-fong, etc. This linguistic double-ness and fluidity of identity become a “thing”.
It helps to know that in 1930s brothel culture, if a prostitute takes a lover, he stops paying her, and she starts supporting him if their finances require it. When they’re not lounging in their western-style brass bed (his gift to her) and smoking opium, Fleur encourages Twelfth Master to train for opera roles in makeup much more colorful and elaborate than anything she puts on her face. From this end of film history, those scenes weirdly flash forward to Cheung’s iconic breakthrough in Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine (Bà Wáng Bié Jī, 1993).
The problem is Twelfth Master’s not very good at singing. He won’t be as sparkling a “success” as Fleur in her “career” as a “courtesan”. As Rouge‘s story progresses and deepens, the less it seems like the romantic fairy tale of its initial production design and more a gilded and lacquered trap of false fronts painted over to look pretty and hide the social cracks.
A radical shift occurs in the third reel. Suddenly we’re in a modern newspaper office where bespectacled Yuan Ting (Alex Man Chi-leung) works the want ads. At the same time, his reporter girlfriend, Ah Chor (Emily Chu Bo-yee), rushes off to cover a beauty contest scandal where contestants are blowing the lid off dirty secrets. This detail of the continuing trade in feminine beauty is touched on very lightly.
Dressed the same in her flowery expensive cheongsam and looking like she just stepped off a film set, Fleur approaches Yuan Ting about placing a want ad informing Twelfth Master that she’s waiting for him at a certain time and place. Amid her mysterious vanishings and apparitions, she calmly informs the modern young man that she’s been dead for more than 50 years since her suicide pact with Twelfth Master. She’s come from the underworld to seek him because he’s gotten lost. The modern couple accepts this information with admirably minimal skepticism, the better to proceed with the story and not waste time.
The rest of the film is a nostalgic and melancholy contrast between the beautifully balanced timelines, a comparison of things gained and lost in social and technological progress. The modern couple, who live together without marriage, admit they’re much less romantic and more practical than the ’30s couple.
The modern streets feel more forbidding, lonely, and faceless, yet Cantonese opera remains around as a cultural relic. A modern equivalent is the Hong Kong cinema, where we witness a ghost story being shot by actress Kara Hui and director Lau Kar-Wing, both associated with Shaw Brothers studio. Rouge is a Golden Harvest production from Jackie Chan and Leonard Ho, rivals of the Shaw Brothers.
Hong Kong is so saturated with history that its eras exist simultaneously in memory and even physically. As Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, points out in the disc’s liner notes, the fact that Fleur’s appearance remains unchanged after 50 years “is a pointed reference to a condition of the Joint Declaration, namely that Hong Hong would remain its own semi-autonomous region for a half-century after the transfer of sovereignty.”
Rouge‘s driving mystery of what happened to Twelfth Master isn’t some whiplashing gob-smacker. It’s handled well and delivered with restrained heartfelt emotion on the part of Mui, who carries this film on her stylish, ethereal shoulders and was rewarded with more than one Best Actress prize for it. Though devoid of effects and excess spookery, preferring to drench itself in atmosphere and the contrast between eras, Rouge proved a hit with both the public and critics.
Watching Rouge today, many viewers feel the unfortunate extra-formal dimension of knowing that its beautiful, tragic couple died in 2003. Mui and Cheung were both huge, influential stars in the world of Cantopop who crossed over successfully into films, with Cheung especially doing major film work. He committed suicide at 46, while Mui succumbed to cancer at 40.
Unfortunately, the “romantic” concept of suicide is also very much a cultural thing, especially among beautiful young actresses in the film industry. Kwan directed an exquisite biopic of Ruan Lingyu, the most famous 1930s actress to make that lamentable career move in Center Stage (Ruan Lingyu, 1991), which has been released in restored form by Film Movement Classics.
Two intriguing bonuses from Criterion are 1997 documentaries by Kwan. Made for British TV, Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema examines cross-dressing and male bonding as elements in Chinese film history and interviews major directors like Chang Cheh, John Woo, Ang Lee, and Tsai Ming-liang. It’s rich with clips and will make you yearn for old-time classics from the likes of Maxu Weibang and Xie Jin, not to mention a famous female couple, Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin, who made many films together. In a separate interview, Kwan recalls that Chang Cheh’s shirt-shredding epics of “brotherhood” impacted Kwan’s recognition of his sexuality.
The other documentary, Still Love You After All These, considers Kwan’s identity as a Hong Kong citizen in the tremulous year of the British colony’s handover to China.