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It is true enough that Fleur struggles to make herself understood to Yuen and Chu – her language is no longer current and her way of thinking arcane considering they are only two generations apart.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

The Mad Monk (濟公, Johnnie To, 1993)

mad monk poster“The Mad Monk” sounds like a great name for a creepy ghost, emerging robed and chanting from the shadows to make you fear for your mortal soul. Sadly, The Mad Monk (濟公, Jì Gōng) features only one “ghost”, but it might just be the cutest in cinema history. The second of Johnnie To’s Shaw Brothers collaborations with comedy star Stephen Chow is another wisecracking romp in which Chow revels in his smart alec superiority, settling bets made in heaven and eventually vowing to spread peace and love across the whole world.

Dragon Fighter Lo Han (Stephen Chow) has a low opinion of his fellow celestial beings. He thinks they ought to be taking more of an interest rather than blindly following the rules. Consequently, Lo Has been making all kinds of mischief and the other gods are very annoyed. They’ve appealed to their high arbitrator – the goddess of mercy (Anita Mui). Wisecraking Lo Han first tries to fob the gods off by sending his friend, Tiger Fighter (Ng Man-tat), instead but can’t resist offering a few more words of smugness in his own defence. Nevertheless, the goddess sees something in Lo Han’s argument and, rather than condemn him to a life as an animal, sets him a challenge – go to Earth and change the fates of three people whose destinies are set to remain the same for the next nine lives. Lo Han agrees and the “Mad Monk” is born.

Like Justice, My Foot, Mad Monk is an opportunity for Chow to show off his verbal dexterity with occasional forays into martial arts. Sadly much of the fast and furious dialogue does not translate though Chow’s spirited performance helps to breathe life into the comedy. Slightly less forgivably, To and Chow repeat jokes from the earlier film including one odd, very much of its time sequence in which Chow walks in on two gay men enjoying a banana in the privacy of their own room. Other attempts at long running jokes include Tiger’s metamorphosis into a giant baby which soon becomes tiring but is eventually forgotten.

Lo Han’s mission is to “reform” a prostitute (Maggie Cheung) who enjoys her work too much, a beggar (Anthony Wong ) with social anxiety and low self esteem, and a stone hearted villain (Kirk Wong) intent on inflicting as much evil as possible on the Mad Monk and his cohorts. Whilst living as a mortal, Lo Han is not allowed to use any of his celestial magic, but is given a magic fan which can be used three times a day. The goddess of mercy instructs Lo Han that he is to use his sincerity to convert these dyed in the wool sinners, which he does – descending to Earth in an oddly Christlike fashion, determined to save these lost souls even if he’s doing it for the pleasure of winning a bet more than an altruistic desire to help “troubled” people back onto what he sees as “the right path”.

Like many Shaw Brothers comedies, Mad Monk’s narrative is its least important element. The nonsensical plot races from one random incident to another, glued together with over the top slapstick and the occasional martial arts showdown. By the end, Lo Han has wound up in a monster movie as he tries to stop a giant marauding spirit from destroying the city even though he is running out of time for his personal quest and currently has other pressing concerns. Lo Han’s “sincere” attempts to manipulate his targets into changing their ways may seem as if they fail, but even if the effects will be felt in the next life rather than this one, Lo Han has made difference in the mortal world, albeit not quite the one he expected. Seemingly out of nowhere, Lo Han’s mission seems to have changed him too as he begins extolling the virtues of compassion and insisting on building another paradise to spread peace and love through the world. Like the film itself, it’s a noble cause but one that sadly never hits its mark.


Celestial Pictures trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Justice, My Foot! (審死官, Johnnie To, 1992)

Stephen Chow has always been a force of nature but even before making his name as a director in the mid-90s, he contributed his madcap energy to some of the highest grossing movies of the era. Justice, My Foot! (審死官) is very much of the “makes no sense” comedy genre and, directed by Johnnie To for Shaw Brothers, makes great use of the collective propensity for whimsy on offer. Even if not quite managing to keep the momentum going until the closing scenes, Justice, My Foot! succeeds in delivering quick fire (often untranslatable) jokes and period martial arts action sure to keep genre fans happy.

Chow plays unscrupulous lawyer Sung Shih-Chieh who has built himself quite the reputation as a silver tongued advocate, able to talk his clients out of pretty much anything by bamboozling the judges with crazy logic offered at speed. However, his talents have a downside in that he and his wife (Anita Mui) have sadly lost 12 children already which he attributes to a karmic debt for all his finagling. She’s convinced him to retire and move to the country but Sung keeps getting himself involved in other people’s affairs and when his reckless to decision to defend the son of a wealthy man who has caused the death of a pauper in a street fight results in the death of their own infant son, Mrs. Sung has had enough.

That is, until she encounters a series of injustices of her own as a heavily pregnant woman visits her tea shop along with her shady seeming brother. Soon enough the brother tries to convince a random stranger to marry his sister, only to suddenly run off with all of the guy’s money leaving him alone and confused with the mother to be Madame Chou (Carrie Ng). The man gives chase but unfortunately Madam’s Chou’s brother falls off a cliff and creates a whole lot of problems for everyone in the process. Now feeling sorry for a pregnant woman who has been left so completely alone after her own brother tried to sell her and her in-laws murdered her husband, Mrs. Sung changes her mind and convinces her husband to return to the law in defence of this extremely desperate woman.

For a “nonsensical” film, there is actually quite a lot of plot which occasionally becomes hard to follow as it moves freely between set pieces. The jokes come thick and fast and are often of the idiosyncratic Cantonese variety which does not translate particularly well though the delivery helps make up for any lack of understanding. Aside from that Chow packs in as much of his trademark slapstick as possible as he cedes the spotlight to his co-star Anita Mui who provides the martial arts action whilst proving why Mrs. Sung is the more dominant partner. Accordingly there is some typically sexist humour in which Sung is criticised for his “effeminate” cowardice by Mrs. Sung as she dresses him in her clothes, makeup and hairstyle while he escapes. A running joke about two gay servants doesn’t really go anywhere but is actually sort of refreshing in its ordinariness.

Nonsense it may be but there’s a persistent layer of darkness from the throwaway references to the deaths of the Sungs’ children, to the violent punishments inflicted by the court which include both beatings and eye gouging, and then there’s the attempted suicide of Madame Chou apparently gathering enough energy to hang herself from the rafters mere minutes after unexpectedly giving birth in another extended gag. A judicial farce, the film mocks the very idea of justice as the judges are all corrupt noblemen, well known for taking bribes and looking after their own to further their positions. Sung is no better as he plays the system for his own gain, cynically affirming that there is no rule of law and it’s everyman for himself when you live in such an anarchic system. To’s direction is typically ironic with his canted angles and balletic camera even if he is, to a certain extent, playing the Shaw Brothers game. Justice, My Foot! is not a first rate Chow effort, sagging in the middle and getting bogged down in its own manoeuvring, but does bring both the laughs and the punches with a standout performance from Anita Mui to boot.


Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)