Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1987)
Cantonese Title: Yin ji kau
Master 12 (Leslie Cheung), so-named because he is the 12th son in the Chan family, falls in love with Fleur (Anita Mui), a charmingly demure courtesan who fetches hundreds of dollars for the mere touching of her neck or ear. The master showers the courtesan with numerous gifts, which in turn, is rewarded by the courtesan with her love. Undaunted by the master's family's refusal to their relationship, the two live together forcing the master to work as an extra for a Chinese opera staging. Their relationship tragically ends when both decide to die by suicide, promising each other to meet up in the afterlife. Fifty three years later, Fleur reappears in her traditional cheongsam in the office of newspaper editor Yuen (Alex Man) asking for the editor to print an ad for a missing person. Fleur follows Yuen until he discovers that Fleur is a ghost. Yuen, with his girlfriend (Emily Chu), helps the melancholic Fleur to find her lover who failed to meet her in the afterlife.
Produced by Jackie Chan, Rouge is an odd ghost story as the film does not seek to draw out horror from the supernatural scenario. Instead, the film is quite disarmingly romantic. You are instantly drawn to what may seem like a timeless romance the moment Master 12 hears the low-toned yet seductive singing voice of Fleur echo through the hallways of the brothel. When the two meet for the first time, a gorgeous exchange of carefully placed flirtation, pervades the party. This is followed by a courting sequence which is equal if not greater in romantic atmosphere as the initial meeting of the two. The Master await Fleur patiently as the latter go out and about seemingly testing the love and intentions of the man courting her. Just from the introductory scenes, the hallucinatory scent of romantic passions can be felt floating the beautifully designed walls and windows of the brothel.
The film is beautifully shot by Bill Wong, and is the third feature of Stanley Kwan, who directs the film with quiet yet assured pacing. The interchanging of time periods is significantly done in a logical manner, assuring the feeling of sad nostalgia as the classically dressed ghost sees movie theaters and ancient shops turned into commercial spaces and highways. Above the external changes of the Hong Kong landscape, a theme of the huge differences of romanticism between Fleur's age and the present age surfaces. Unwittingly, the editor and his girlfriend's relationship is tested and is put upon a microscope when they are swept by the courtesan's sad story. In one scene, the girlfriend asks the editor if he'd commit suicide for her, both of them said no. As the story progresses, Kwan seems to persist with the idea that it is not the quality of the sacrifices one would commit for the survival of romantic relationships that has changed, but the fact that such ability to commit such sacrifices is inherent to the person, depending on his or her experiences in life or his or her capacity to love unflinchingly. The ending of the film suggests the idea that it is the courtesan's experiences (Kwan always had a soft spot in portraying women who are stepped upon) that gave her the determination to commit the suicide, and not the fact that the quality of relationships of old is much stronger than in the present.
The performances of both Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung are magnificent. Mui isn't exactly the prettiest of actresses, but her face possesses a unique sultry and seductively sorrowful quality that keeps her rather flat character interesting, despite that all she does is wait and stare and talk. My main problem with the film is that I don't quite buy the efforts given by the editor and his girlfriend in finding where Master 12 is. The editor and his girlfriend come up with the silliest of scenarios to explain the mysterious numbers, and to help Fleur in finding her lover. The supernatural doens't always jive with the grounded realities of the film. It is also unfortunate that there is a certain lack of humor that could've helped Kwan's droll pacing to move forward. On the other hand, the film is beautiful to look at, and the tragic relationship between Fleur and her lover is enough to keep you watching until the rather emotionally unfulfilling end.