How long should you wait for love? They say every love story is a ghost story, and Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (胭脂扣) is a love story in more ways than one. A love letter to old Hong Kong, Rouge laments the passing of time and defeat of beauty by efficiency but then stops to wonder if perhaps that isn’t better and if we’re all secretly happier in world in which dying for love has gone out of fashion.
We begin in the early 1930s as courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui Yim-fong), dressed as a man and singing of doomed love, catches the eye of nobleman Master 12 Chan Chen-Pang (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing). He lavishes gifts on her and the pair fall madly in love, but his family do not approve of the match and are set on Chen-pang marrying their chosen bride. Out of options, the pair decide on double suicide, but Fleur finds herself all alone in the afterlife and, after 50 years have passed, makes her way to the Hong Kong of the late 1980s in search of lost love.
Many things have changed in the Hong Kong of 1988, but luckily they still have classified ads which is how Fleur decides to find Chen-pang. Of course, ghosts don’t generally have need of money which means she’s still out of luck, but for some reason she finds herself attached to the kindly clerk, Yuen (Alex Man Chi-leung), who eventually agrees to “admit” her while he and his reporter girlfriend Chu (Irene Wan Bik-ha) help track down Chen-pang in the hope that Fleur can find him before the next memorial of her passing in two days’ time.
Kwan contrasts the opulence of the 1930s with the stark efficiency of the modern city in which pleasure palaces have been replaced with convenience stores. Fleur wanders through a world much changed, and sees its ghosts everywhere she goes. The Yi Hung teahouse is place of decadent delight filled with music, colour, and elegance but it’s also one built on misery in which young women are trapped and exploited as a direct result of generalised poverty. Hong Kong has moved on and is now one of the wealthiest cities in Asia, bustling with industry and ambition. The modern cityscape may be less aesthetically pleasing, but perhaps that’s not altogether a bad thing if that beauty had existed only to mask an unpalatable reality.
It is true enough that Fleur struggles to make herself understood to Yuen and Chu – her language is no longer current and her way of thinking arcane considering they are only two generations apart. Fleur wonders why the pair of them aren’t married, to which Yuen bemusedly replies that perhaps it’s that there’s no particular pressure urging them towards a more formal union. In any case their relationship seems solid enough in a pleasant, ordinary sort of way. Where Chen-pang gives Fleur the gift of an empty rouge case, Yuen notices Chu’s shoes are worn and thinks to buy her new ones seeing she’s always running about. They wonder if they’d commit suicide for love and come to the conclusion that they wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other only that life is precious and that kind of grand romanticism seems so absurd in the much more down to earth 1980s.
Still, Chu and Yuen can’t help but be captivated by the grandeur of Fleur’s romantic longing. They too want to see a happy ending to her tragic story that makes 50 years in limbo worth the wait, but what if Chen-pang was just a selfish coward who woke up from a romantic daydream and went back to his ordinary life of familial obligation and frustrated desire? Fleur died for love, but 50 years later it all seems so senseless and her return is, in a sense, an attempt to come to terms with disappointment – in love and in the world. The Hong Kong of 1988 may have been anxious too, if in a different way, as another uncertain dawn hovered on the horizon but Fleur’s parting gift is to accept that there’s no point waiting for someone who has no intention of coming. She says goodbye to the past, and walks into a new future with a lightness in her step while the past, suddenly burdened, can only look on with regret.
Rouge screens at the BFI on 4th May with director Stanley Kwan in attendance for a Q&A as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.
International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)