In 1930s Hong Kong the courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui) enters into a passionate romance with the pharmacist Chen-pang (Leslie Cheung), one that ends in tragedy when Chen-pang’s wealthy family refuse to allow their relationship to continue. In 1987 Fleur appears in the office of a Hong Kong newspaper, searching for the lover that abandoned her in a suicide pact more than five decades ago.
Rouge, directed by Stanley Kwan, is a romantic fantasy starring two of the most iconic and beloved stars in Hong Kong film history. Anita Mui was Hong Kong’s most famous pop singer, and had segued effortlessly into an acclaimed career as a screen actress. Leslie Cheung was effectively her male equivalent: considered one of the ‘founding fathers of Cantopop’, he was both a successful singer and hugely popular actor. It is not an exaggeration to say that both Cheung and Mui remain among the most talented actors ever to grace Hong Kong cinema.
Cheung committed suicide in April 2003, jumping from the roof of Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Mui died just eight months later due to cervical cancer. Rouge, released all the way back in 1987, feels all the more resonant and tragic due to real life coming to echo the film. It makes it a slightly difficult film to assess and appreciate on its own merits; its lead performers simply dominate and overshadow it from beginning to end.
Cheung brings an enormous sensitivity and vulnerability to his role. He is impulsive and romantic, but also weak-minded and cowardly. Mui is simply radiant as Fleur. She has such a careful and precise control over her presence and presentation throughout the film. Above all she gives her character a tremendous dignity; she really was one of the finest female actors that Hong Kong ever had.
It is a surprisingly small scale and modest picture. The film begins in the 1930s with a beautifully staged and costumed Yi Hung Brothel. It tricks the viewer into expecting a gently paced period drama. Suddenly it’s 1987 and Fleur, looking not a day older than her brothel days, is trying to place a personal advertisement in a local newspaper. Asides from a couple of key flashbacks, the film plays out in what was then the present day. Fleur is dead, and while the film represents her supernatural existence in a more subtle fashion than the norm, it still falls into a broad craze for ghost stories that was dominating Hong Kong cinema at the time (Ching Siu-tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story, released the same year and also starring Leslie Cheung, would mark the commercial peak of the movement).
This second half co-stars Alex Man and Emily Chu as a 1987 couple who elect to help Fleur reunite with Chen-pang. They both committed suicide in the 1930s. Fleur has spent more than 50 years waiting for his soul in the afterlife, but he has never appeared. Both Man and Chu deliver straightforward, naturalistic performances that help Mui’s fey, seductive Fleur stand out from the 1987 Hong Kong around her.
While the story is essentially a very simple one – it’s arguably even slight – Kwan’s film is infused with both a sense of nostalgia and, ultimately, an interrogation of that nostalgia. It’s deliberately local film – not just a Hong Kong story, but one specifically about Shek Tong Tsui on Hong Kong Island’s north-west shore. Fleur remarks on all of the buildings – her brothel, restaurants, theatres – that have been demolished to make way for new developments. By the end of the film, that sadness over the loss of the past seems to fade away. The film ends on a forward-looking basis: the past has brought pain and regret, and the future is free of it.
Many critics have noted the importance of when Rouge was produced. In 1984 the agreement was reached between the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China to formally hand sovereignty of Hong Kong over to China in 1997. A pall fell over Hong Kong from that point; one that in many respects did not shift until a few years after the 1997 handover. Rouge stands out from its contemporaries in actually looking forward to the future. It tells its audience that, in the end, things are probably going to be better in the years to come than the ones that have passed. The film itself is a relatively simple, almost ordinary affair. The themes and culture around it – its ill-fated stars, its sense of place, its optimism – make Rouge much, much more than the sum of its parts.