Evidently, in 1987 you could call everyone in Hong Kong with a pager account in a single evening. You probably still do that today. Life moves quickly in Hong Kong, especially for a lovelorn ghost. After fifty years, the spectral courtesan-prostitute finally hopes to reunite with her long lost love in Stanley Kwan’s absolutely classic Rouge (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society.
Refined prostitutes like Fleur could mix with high society in 1930s Hong Kong, but they couldn’t marry into their ranks. However, Chan Chen-pang (a.k.a. “12th Young Master”) the wastrel heir to a dry goods store fortune has different ideas. He is not content to be Fleur’s paramour. He also wants to marry her. That would be alarming enough for his staid family, but his plan to forgo the dry goods business to pursue a career in opera is just too much for them.
Rather than endure life separated from each other, the lovers resolved to commit suicide together so they could start their next lives as a couple. At least that was the plan. When Fleur woke up wherever it is that one does, she was by herself. Having martialed her strength, she has re-entered the human world to find him. Somewhat logically, she thinks to place a classified ad in a long-running tabloid. There she has the good fortune of encountering Yuen, a schlubby ad/sales rep ambiguously dating ambitious reporter Chu. After coming to terms with the ghost business, they both agree to help her find her beloved (including calling all those pager customers at one point).
Rouge is a sentimental favorite of many HK movie fans, for reasons that are immediately apparent. It is lushly romantic and touchingly bittersweet in all the right ways. The scenes set during the 1930s have the elegance of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (which it predates by eleven years), while the contemporary narrative thread treats its supernatural themes with down-to-earth understatement. In both time frames, Anita Mui is arrestingly luminous as Fleur. Sadly, knowing she would succumb to cancer at the terribly premature age of forty adds further poignancy to her performance in retrospect.
Yet, despite its lyric romanticism, Tai An-ping Chiu & Lillian Lee’s adaptation of Lee’s novel acts as a corrective and rebuke to the unrestrained ardor that drove Fleur and Chan to seal their suicide pact. In a significant moment, the 12th Young Master gives Fleur a rouge box pendant. In contrast, Yuen gives Chu the gift of a sensible pair of shoes when the audience first meets them. Its not such a blingy gift, but they are what she really needs. Even though the modern couple admits they would never commit suicide for each other, that also means they will always be there for their partner. In fact, as great as Mui is, Alex Man and Emily Chu arguably forge the more potent and endearing chemistry. Even though he also met with a tragically early demise, Leslie Cheung is a bit of a cold fish as Chan, but it would be hard for anyone to outshine Mui.
In addition to all the aching romance and gently eerie supernatural goings on, Rouge also has the distinction of being produced by Jackie Chan. It is a remarkably assured and accomplished work from Kwan that captured Mui in peak form. It is just a hard film not to love. Very highly recommended, Rouge screens this Saturday (9/24) as part of the SFFS’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.