The Cultural Context of Rouge

Article by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

This article appeared in Issue 25 of Asian Cult Cinema

Promises vanish like smoke,
Love, burning love, can hardly last forever.

"Rouge", the Jackie Chan-produced film from 1987 that paired Leslie Cheung ("A Better Tomorrow") and Anita Mui ("Heroic Trio"), has been labeled a classic by many Hong Kong film purists for its decidedly arthouse take on the ghost story genre. With its melding of period piece trappings, supernatural elements, and a simple tale of doomed love, "Rouge" easily stands out from the blood-soaked gangster sagas, silly comedies, and wu shu epics that normally typify the film industry of Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, "Rouge" wound up sweeping the Eighth Annual Hong Kong Film Awards, taking Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Editing, Best Film Score, and Best Song.

I bought this at a stall outside the theater. It looks fine, but the rouge has to be changed.

Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung

"Rouge" tells the story of an ill-fated romance that takes place in Hong Kong during the Thirties. Fleur (Mui) is a courtesan in the lavish Yi Hung Brothel, one of the top four houses of ill-repute in the British colony. She begins a relationship with the 12th Master (Cheung), a wealthy young man who stands to take over a lucrative family business.

Auntie, Chen-pang and I love each other. A girl of my background can't expect much. I only want to become an honest woman.
Since you're so frank, let me be frank too. We Chens have kept ourselves quite alone. He has a cousin Shu-hsien... I wish they could get married soon, start his own business. Our ancestors now all depend on him. We'll see if you should be allowed to join us. I know a girl of your personality won't change. Chen-pang is only 24. I only worry he may change. You know men well.

Unfortunately, this cross-class pairing is doomed for two reasons. Though the 12th Master yearns to be an actor in Chinese opera, he ends up spending an increasing amount of his time in a shiftless opium-induced stupor. In addition, the 12th Master's parents disapprove of the union, preferring that their eldest son marry a woman of more respectable social standing. On the eve that the 12th Master returns home to marry his cousin, Fleur makes a desperate bid to stay with her lover through a suicide pact, in the hopes of meeting in hell (the Chinese terminology for the afterlife).

I want to put an ad for a missing person.
How do you want it to be worded?
'Master 12, 3811, waiting at the same place, Fleur'

Unfortunately, Fleur never meets up with the 12th Master in the afterlife, and ends up returning to Earth to find him. By now, fifty-three years have passed, and the Hong Kong that Fleur knew is long gone. Disoriented by the unfamiliar surroundings, Fleur asks for help from Yuan (Alex Man), a newspaper employee, and his girlfriend Chu (Emily Chu of "A Better Tomorrow"), a reporter. Together, they begin a search of Hong Kong for the 12th Master-- a search that uncovers some disquieting truths the relationship between Fleur and the 12th Master, as well as the 12th Master's fate.

I committed suicide with Master 12 and we promised to meet again in hell. But I arrived first and failed to meet him. So I've come up to look for him. Will you do me a favor and help me find him?

Rouge Poster

Despite having an ambitious story, strong performances by Mui and Cheung, and a lush production, critics have always assailed "Rouge" for its laggard pacing, undeveloped characters, and a seemingly incomplete narrative. Unfortunately, a cursory viewing of the "Rouge", coupled with a literal interpretation of the events in the film, will usually lead the casual viewer to the same conclusion. In order to fully appreciate the significance of "Rouge", it is important to view the film as a gestalt of disparate elements that both form and support a thematic core. As described in the text "Film Art" by Bordwell and Thompson, "every component functions as part of the overall pattern that is perceived... subject matter and abstract ideas all enter in to the total system of the artwork." There are very few filmmakers who take such a holistic approach to cinematic storytelling-- the more well known ones include Wong Kar Wai ("Fallen Angels"), Atom Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter"), and the late Krzysztof Kieslowski ("Three Colors Trilogy").

How long have you known each other?
4 years.
Why haven't you married her?
Maybe because there's no pressure.
How long have you known Master 12?
6 months.
Why didn't he marry you? Why did you commit suicide?
Because his family objected.

In addition to paying strict attention to the form and function at work in "Rouge", it is also important to examine the cultural context in which this film was made. It was in December of 1984 that the Sino-British Joint Declaration Agreement was signed by both the People's Republic of China and the United Kingdom, sealing the fate of Hong Kong residents by returning the British Colony to Mainland control in 1997. Between 1984 and 1989, there was a strong air of uncertainty over what would become of Hong Kong after the Handover, with mixed feelings on how well the Chinese government would administer the promised 'one country, two systems'. And though there certainly a number of camps espousing doom-and-gloom scenarios, there were still those who had a somewhat more optimistic outlook. Of course, everything changed in 1989, with the Tiannamen Square massacre on June 5th. The Chinese government demonstrated to the world that its iron-fist policies were still in place, and this further eroded the confidence of Hong Kong residents in what was to become of their home.

There won't be another Fleur in this age. Fate is unkind to women. I envy her.

During the period between 1984 and 1989, with so much uncertainty in Hong Kong's future, a number of films preferred to look back at the past, bathing in the nostalgia of simpler times, and bringing with it a resurgence in period dramas (such as Tsui Hark's "Peking Opera Blues" and Wong Kar Wai's "Days of Being Wild"). Forward-looking films viewed the future with mistrust and cynicism-- a good example of this is found in John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow", in which Chow Yun-Fat looks down at the neon Hong Kong skyline and remarks, "I never realized Hong Kong looked so good at night. Like most things, it won't last. That's for sure." Of course, the visions of doom-and-gloom only mushroomed following the events of Tiannamen Square, which galvanized the film industry for a number of years with some decidedly anti-Mainland sentiments (witness Woo's "Bullet in the Head"). However, there were still a few films that espoused a much more optimistic attitude towards the impending Handover. "Rouge" is one such film.

Why are you laughing?
Look... Yi Hung Brothel is now a kindergarten!

At the heart of "Rouge" is a tragedy that illustrates the inevitability of change. Throughout the film, Fleur desperately clings to her past, despite the obvious signs around her that the rest of the world has moved on. Dressed in her chongsam and displaying her coquettish mannerisms, she is a walking anachronism in 1987 Hong Kong. Fifty years have passed, Chinese opera theaters have been torn down to make way for convenience stores, and the Yi Hung Brothel, where Fleur was first brought to at the age of 16, now houses a kindergarten. She is unwilling to move on in the afterlife, preferring to roam the Earth in search of her lost love. Not surprisingly, Fleur also displays this behavior before her death, since it is her unwillingness to accept the end of her relationship with the 12th Master that leads to the suicide pact.

This is Shek Tong, isn't it?
All changed... it used to be the old Kam Ling Restaurant here.

Intoxicated with her memories of the distant past, Fleur remembers events, including her romance with the 12th Master, in much more favorable, nostalgic flights of fallacy. As details about their courtship are provided, romantic illusions are dispelled as it becomes clear that it is a pathological relationship, and that the 12th Master is very much like Fleur, fearful of upsetting the status quo. Unfortunately for Fleur, the status quo for the 12th Master is abiding by his parents' wishes, which eventually leads him to not following Fleur into the afterlife. Like the wu shu movie set in which the final scene plays out, the illusion of the past is a mere fabrication that is much more glamorous than in reality.

Would you commit suicide for me?
Would we be that romantic?
Just answer me.
No. What about you?

However, by the end of the film, Fleur comes to understand the necessity of change, and her journey is complete. She finds the 12th Master a penniless old man still addicted to opium, sleeping on a movie set. Seeing how little he has changed over the years, preferring to remain stagnant, Fleur finds the courage to leave the 12th Master behind, and vows to move on in the afterlife. Likewise, her two helpers, Yuan and Chu, have also come to understand that the idealism of Hong Kong past has no place in modern-day society.

What's your rank?
I only have one sister.
Females have no family rank. You might be called Yuan 11 or Master Yuan.
Sounds like an obsolete Cantonese movie.
Yes... tell me, where's Tai Ping Theater? I used to see Chinese opera there. Have we passed it?
It's been pulled down already. It's now a commercial arcade.

Taken in the context of the 1997 Handover, "Rouge" is a surprisingly optimistic film that asks its viewers to embrace the coming change in Hong Kong as it returns to Mainland China. In this film, it is the fear of the future and the inability to accept change that leads to the downfall of its characters. Likewise, director Stanley Kwan tries to instill a sense of hope of the coming Reunification, and encourages his viewers to approach the Handover with an open mind instead of mistrust and fear. Furthermore, Kwan illustrates that the 'old ways' are not always worth preserving by thoroughly deconstructing Fleur's rose-colored memories of the past, and then contrasting them with the mores of modern-day Hong Kong.

I yearned to die myself. I was afraid that he might not die of opium, leaving me behind in hell. I wouldn't let him live with Shu-hsien.

So beneath all the costume drama and supernatural occurrences, "Rouge" conveys a thematic undercurrent consistent with the cultural context in which the film was made. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Stanley Kwan has chosen to cast a more favorable light on the Handover, encouraging his audience to meet an uncertain future with a positive outlook, embracing the inevitability change instead of avoiding it. Viewed from this perspective, it is not difficult to understand why "Rouge", despite its shortcomings, is still revered as a classic.

I've kept this rouge box for 53 years. Take it. I won't wait for you anymore.

Images courtesy of Golden Harvest Films. All rights reserved.

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