(Hong Kong 1987 97m) DVD1/3 (Hong Kong only)
Twelfth Master, 3811, waiting at the same place
p Jackie Chan d Stanley Kwan w Lee Bihua, Qiu-Dai Anping novel Lee Bihua ph Bill Wong ed Peter Cheung m Michael Lai art Piao Ruomu, Horace Ma
Anita Mui (Fleur), Leslie Cheung (Chan Chen-Pang, Twelfth Master), Alex Man (Yuen), Emily Chu (Ah Chor), Irene Wan (Suk-Yin), Patrick Tse, Wang Yu,
Yes, the producer is that Jackie Chan, of Police Story and Rush Hour fame. But this couldn’t be further from all that. What we have here is arguably the most poignant of all modern films. In truth, it always was poignant, but since the tragic untimely deaths of both of its stars, its central story now has added retrospective irony. It’s a film to both renew your belief in love and vow never to love again.
In Hong Kong in 1934, courtesan Fleur works at the house of Yi Hung, visited by many of the local businessmen and celebrities. There she attracts the attention of young Twelfth Master, heir to a fortune, who is promised in marriage to his young cousin. However, when the two fall in love, they meet obstacles everywhere and, realising they can never marry they make a suicide pact…Flash forward fifty three years later to modern Hong Kong. A newspaper office is closing for the night when a woman looking identical to Fleur arrives, looking very pale, and asks to put an advert in the paper. It becomes apparent that this is Fleur, and she has an amazing explanation for both her antiquated attire and for her still looking so young. She’s a ghost and is trying to find her dead lover from over half a century ago.
Hong Kong cinema of the eighties was undoubtedly a mixed bag, and sifting for the gold amongst the dirt could be daunting. Yet Stanley Kwan is undoubtedly one of their true lights and Rouge is his magnum opus, a film of true haunting beauty and not a little emotional power. Cinematographer Bill Wong relishes the contrasts between the gas-lit interiors of thirties Hong Kong, with its profuse opium smoke and the modern neon lights of capitalist modernity. It’s also a film that seems at home in the dark, with most of its action taking place at night, and when ghostly Fleur finally complains at the sunlight, cowering like a vampire in the corner of her room, it perhaps shows us why. In the clear light of day such romantic ideals are quashed and grow weaker by the minute. Only in the moonlight can such passion come to the fore.
Yet, even before the passing away of Mui and Cheung, it was their performances that held the film together, providing an emotional centre that resonated from the vernacular around the world, just as Fleur’s love carried through time. Cheung, a former pop star, shows remarkable assurance and restraint as the ultimately weak Chan. He undoubtedly loves Fleur, but not in the way that Fleur loves him, and in the end his passion for her is not strong enough to allow him to die for it. The first signs of the real acting talent that would bloom in Farewell, My Concubine are plain to see. Topping him, however, is Mui, a truly haunting spectre, face as pale as the moon, lips of darkest red, almost deathly in her appearance, her mesmerising, faintly disapproving eyes telling of a thousand misfortunes and carrying her rouge box trinket like it was the Holy Grail. Just watch the expression of resignation and remembrance that crosses her face as she watches Man and Chu make love. Here’s a woman who knows not only the real power of love, but that she killed herself for someone who didn’t deserve her.
Watching Rouge again after over fifteen years is like returning to an old friend who you’ve put off seeing in case you no longer got along. But there’s no danger of that, Kwan’s story pulling you in from the outset with its power and subtlety (such as Mui symbolically showing she’s a ghost not by walking through walls but showing she has no heartbeat). “Your name is ‘heartless’, I put my passion on the wrong man” our heroine sings as she goes into the light and Rouge suitably remains a transcendental experience for lovers of oriental cinema, and in the 2004 deluxe DVD restoration released in Hong Kong, it not only looks fantastic but is a glowing tribute to the much missed Cheung and Mui.