Hong Kong, 1934 and in this high class brothel millionaire playboy Chan Cheng-Pang (Leslie Cheung) arrived one evening to find his friends had arranged a party for him. But he was not so interested in them as he was in the courtesan who sang for him, Fleur (Anita Mui), whose enchanting manner beguiled him, so much so that he became obsessed. She resisted at first, but he was so persistent that any question of the gulf in their class differences became irrelevant as they both fell deeply in love. But how could they ensure that love would last?
We find that out around twenty minutes in, when Fleur shows up in modern day 1987 Hong Kong for reasons you can doubtless guess, but take a little while for the newspaper worker Yuen (Alex Man) to latch onto. Co-produced by Jackie Chan, Rouge was a ghost story, but not one which may have you thinking of star Cheung's most famous film in that vein, A Chinese Ghost Story as it was assuredly not a comedy and no special effects were used. Mostly this was a drama of romantic yearning where it so happened the main character was a spirit whose attachment to that one special person had led her to a foolhardy act, not one which the storyline was prepared to allow her to capitalise on when the mood was so melancholy.
Therefore no wild switches in mood that you might expect from many a Hong Kong New Wave fantasy effort, as this was pretty much consistently feeling sorry for itself throughout: no laughs, basically. It was regarded as something of an instant classic among fans of the craft, but it truly achieved a special place in the hearts of the followers of both leads when fifteen years after it was was released, both died in separate but tragic circumstances, Cheung from suicide and Mui from cancer a few months later. They had been very close in life, which made Rouge a film for their legions of fans to return to and muse over the poignancy of its new significance since the year of 2003.
This could just as easily have been a comedy as it was a drama, but director Stanley Kwan was making a name for himself in swooningly romantic filmmaking, and Rouge was very much in that style. When Fleur appears to Yuen, asking to place an ad in his newspaper to contact her lost love, he doesn't think a lot of it, but then she admits she has no money to pay for the ad and begins to follow him, not in a stalker kind of way but more like a lost puppy trying to find some direction. Yuen tolerates this, giving her a small amount of cash so she can have her fortune told which is very important to her (though looking back, was neither accurate or comforting), but then on the top deck of a bus he realises what he's talking to.
Initially freaked out, Yeun panics until Fleur manages to calm him down by making it clear she is no threat, so he invites her back to his apartment, which he shares with no-nonsense girlfriend Chu (Emily Chu); being a lot more upfront about her feelings, she tends to be more forthright and quizzes Fleur about what is going on, whereupon we're treated to a flashback to see how the courtesan got to where she is. Essentially there was a suicide pact between her and Chan when they could not take their love any further due to overwhelming social pressure, hoping to be reunited in the afterlife - so where is he? You can guess what's happened, but that doesn't make it any less forlorn as this adopted an emotional yet cynical take on grand gestures for love that don't work out the way you hope; in this way it was curiously down on romance for a film with its reputation, telling you that so much in life is fleeting, including the important stuff, that you shouldn't throw it away, yet it affectingly acknowledged the hurt regardless. Music by Lai Sui-Tin.
Among the greatest Hong Kong movies of all time. It was also Jackie Chan's attempt to produce a vehicle for then-girlfriend Anita Mui and prove he could do more besides martial arts films. He was also quite close friends with Leslie Cheung. In fact the pair originally planned to star together in Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine until Jackie got cold feet.
While Roge works fantastically well as a classic weepy, it is so much more. Hong Kong audiences were moved by the love story but also left feeling wistful for a bygone age. In a clever conceit, Fleur - a literal spirit - embodies everything long vanished by the time this film appeared in theatres. In a way, audiences wept as much for their own lost innocence as the tragic story.
15 Oct 2012
Not sure it was lost innocence so much as purest nostalgia given it's pointed out Fleur died the year before prostitution was outlawed, but there is indeed great play made of scenes where she realises she doesn't recognise the old city now so much has changed in fifty years or so.