Rouge (胭脂扣, Stanley Kwan, 1988)

Rouge poster 2How 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It is true enough that Fleur struggles to make herself understood to Yuen and Chu – her language is no longer current and her way of thinking arcane considering they are only two generations apart.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)

Prince Charming (青蛙王子, Wong Jing, 1984)

Prince charming 84 poster“This isn’t a film from the 1930s!” a confused sidekick exclaims part way through Wong Jing’s zany ‘80s comedy Prince Charming (青蛙王子). He’s right, it isn’t, but it might as well be for all the farcical goings on in Wong’s hugely populist, unabashedly zeitgeisty romp through a rapidly modernising society. Starring popstar Kenny Bee, Prince Charming also marks the feature film debut of the later legendary Maggie Cheung who would find herself making a fair few disposable comedies in the early part of her career. All the Wong trademarks are very much in evidence from the sometimes crude humour to the random narrative developments and deliberate theatricality but it has its charms, even if perhaps despite itself.

Signalling the “aspirational” atmosphere right away, Wong opens in “Hawaii” with Kenny Bee performing one of the many musical numbers which will be heard throughout the film (which is also a kind of idol movie as well as a populist Shaw Brothers Comedy). Chen Li Pen (Kenny Bee) is the son of an oil magnate and hotel chain manager but unlike his father, is a sensitive, nerdy young man who gets the hiccups around attractive women and has never had any luck with the opposite sex. Nevertheless, his mother wants to set him up with an arranged marriage – something which he vehemently opposes but understands will become harder for him fend off if he can’t find himself a love match in good time. Enter his old friend Lolanto (Nat Chan Pak-Cheung) who is a self-styled ladies man if a bit “common”. Lolanto has come to Hawaii on holiday and to hang out with Li Pen, but like any young guy he also wants to meet some girls.

The guys end up in a kind of sparring match with the two ladies staying in an adjacent room at the hotel, May (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) and Kitty, (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) following a series of misunderstandings. When the girls drug them and then somehow leave them on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the boys are humiliated but don’t have too long to nurse their wounds because Li Pen’s dad sends them back to Hong Kong to investigate suspected embezzlement at head office. As luck would have it, both May and Kitty work for Li Pen’s family firm (which was perhaps why they were staying in the hotel). Another misunderstanding sees May assume Li Pen is a former triad looking for a new start, so she “bribes” the hiring department to get him a job as a chauffeur, while Lolanto ends up in the boss’ office posing as Li Pen. Hilarity ensues.

Aiming a squarely for the populist, Wong’s defiantly aspirational vision revolves around the fabulously wealthy and internationalised Li Pen who went to college in the US and lives most of his life in Hawaii, perhaps not quite understanding Hong Kong in the same way Lolanto does, both because of his outsider status and because of the freedom his wealth gives him. When the two swap roles they each get a kind of education, but their real quest (while halfheartedly investigating the embezzlement scandal) is winning over Kitty and May who think they’re dating a CEO and a chauffeur respectively. Despite their irritation when they realise their mistake, both May and Kitty perhaps come to realise that the deception is a part of what eventually drew them to the guys and they’re a better match than they might otherwise have imagined.

Meanwhile, Wong finally remembers the embezzlement plot and introduces a third woman, Puipui (Rosamund Kwan Chi-Lam), who is secretly a plant set up to seduce the pure hearted Li Pen and marry him because this will in some way prevent the embezzlement scam from coming to light. Puipui’s scheme eventually kicks off the ridiculous finale in which the gang find themselves chased by goons and having to play pool for their lives with hostages hooked up to electric chairs which will be triggered when a certain number of points are scored. Wong adds a host of cutesy touches from cartoon hearts around our lovelorn heroes and adorable doodles popping up as on screen graphics while Kenny Bee and Cherie Chung also get a completely bizarre musical number at the midway point where they pretend to be happy frogs marooned on a private lily pad. It doesn’t make any sense, but it really doesn’t matter. Completely throw away, but strangely fun.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and perhaps other territories)

Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)