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It is true enough that Fleur struggles to make herself understood to Yuen and Chu – her language is no longer current and her way of thinking arcane considering they are only two generations apart.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

Behind the Yellow Line (緣份, Taylor Wong, 1984)

behind-yellow-lineBack in the 1980s, you could make a film that’s actually no good at all but because of its fluffy, non-sensical cheesiness still manages to salvage something and capture the viewer’s good will in the process. In the intervening thirty years, this is a skill that seems to have been lost but at least we have films like Taylor Wong’s Behind the Yellow Line (緣份, Yuan Fen) to remind us this kind of disposable mainstream youth comedy was once possible. Starring three youngsters who would go on to become some of Hong Kong’s biggest stars over the next two decades, Behind the Yellow Line is no lost classic but is an enjoyable time capsule of its mid-80s setting.

Paul (Leslie Cheung) is a mild mannered guy trying to get to work on time and make a good impression on his first day on the job but after having a taxi stolen out from under him and having to run some of the way, he rushes onto the underground where he has a meet cute with Monica (Maggie Cheung) – a sad looking lady who barely notices his presence. Paul is smitten and follows her onto the train where she continues to ignore him. Despite his best efforts he makes more of an impression on Anita (Anita Mui) – a wealthy and extremely fashionably dressed woman with giant 80s hair! Anita makes a play for Paul but he only has eyes for Monica. Monica is just getting over a failed affair with a married man and isn’t really sure of anything anymore. It’s all in the hands of fate and the mass transit authority but will true love really run its course?

Behind the Yellow Line (presumably so named for its train station setting, the chinese title is simply “fate”) is meandering mess of a picture though very much typical of its time. Paul and Monica get together but she’s still torn over her married lover who resurfaces at the most inconvenient moment whilst also fighting off the attentions of her flirtatious boss causing Paul to overreact in fit of jealously and almost ruin everything in the process. Eventually they decide to sort things out with a game of fate as Monica hides on the MTR expecting Paul to successfully pin point her location before the last train rolls so that she knows they are truly destined to be together.

This central spine of the film works well enough as Paul and Monica tempt fate with their true love romance but where does Anita fit into all this? Popping up now and then almost at random, Anita seems like a strange after thought or a refugee from another film. A stock ‘80s style kooky character, she’s all big hair and bold makeup but she’s also a wealthy woman trying to buy Paul (or more particularly his parents) with the promise of material security. ‘80s setting aside, consumerism is only a mild bi-product and neither Paul nor Monica is particularly pressed over material concerns – all that matters here is true love destiny and the successful resolution of their romantic difficulties. Anita becomes a kind of cupid, forsaking her own feelings in order to satisfy Paul’s in gesture of true love that also recognises having lost out in the great game of fate as her feelings are not returned. Or, there are things money cannot fix (at least, not in the way you want it to).

In this way Behind the Yellow line becomes more interesting as it’s Anita and Monica who begin to move the plot. Monica is quick to remind us that she’s a single woman and she has the right to choose – in this case, she feels sorry for both of her potential partners (whilst completely disinterested in her boss) and so is inclined to decide to remain alone. The film obviously doesn’t go this way, but it does present her choice as a perfectly valid one whilst also affording her the agency to choose her own destiny right the way through. Anita largely wields her power through her money (which appears to be inherited, the gang of other young people she hangs round with seem to be wealthy too making her choice of Paul a relatively strange one), but she exercises her individuality through her unconventional behaviour and bold fashion choices, refusing to give in to social norms but submitting to “destiny” in acknowledging that her feelings are unrequited.

Very much of its time, Behind the Yellow Line is an obvious piece of disposable entertainment designed to appeal to a very specific audience. Filled with cheerful ‘80s cantopop and bright neon lighting there’s relatively little angst in this tale of youthful romance. Everything bounces along much as one would expect with no melodramatic intrusions save Monica’s sometimes melancholy indecisiveness and Paul’s diffidence. Structurally the film is riddled with problems not least with its use of Anita who seems to appear and disappear as needed with no clear indication of her precise function yet it provides enough silly humour and good natured drama to coast though without too many problems. No great lost classic but enjoyable enough, Behind the Yellow is worth seeking out if only to witness the genesis of these three soon to be giants of the entertainment world whose careers became curiously intertwined before ending much too soon in the early years of the following century.


2003 Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)

Original 1984 Cantonese trailer (English subtitles for onscreen text only, no subtitles for dialogue)

Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Chen Kaige, 1993)

farewell-my-concubine-1993
French DVD cover

Review of Chen Kaige’s 1993 masterpiece Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Bàwáng Bié Jī) first published by UK Anime Network.


“Why does the concubine have to die?” Spanning 53 years of turbulent, mid twentieth century history, Farewell My Concubine is often regarded as the masterpiece of fifth generation director Chen Kaige and one of the films which finally brought Chinese cinema to global attention in the early 1990s. Neatly framing the famous Peking Opera as a symbol of its nation’s soul, the film centres on two young actors who find themselves at the mercy of forces far beyond their control.

Beginning in 1924, Douzi (later Cheng Dieyi) is sold to an acting troupe by his prostitute mother who can no longer care for him. The life in the theatre company is hard – the boys are taught the difficult skills necessary for performing the traditional art form through “physical reinforcement” where beatings and torturous treatment are the norm. Douzi is shunned by the other boys because of his haughty attitude and place of birth but eventually finds a friend in Shitou (later Duan Xiaolou) who would finally become the king to his concubine and a lifelong companion, for good or ill.

Time moves on and the pair become two of the foremost performers of their roles in their generation much in demand by fans of the Opera. However, personal and political events eventually intervene as Xiaolou decides to take a wife, Juxian – formerly a prostitute, and shortly after the Japanese reach the city. Coerced by various forces, Dieyi makes the decision to perform for the Japanese but Xiaolou refuses. After the Japanese have been defeated Dieyi is tried as a traitor though both Xiaolou and Juxian come to his rescue. The pair run in to trouble again during the civil war, but worse is to come during the “Cultural Revolution” in which the ancient art of Peking Opera itself is denounced as a bourgeois distraction and its practitioners forced into a very public self criticism conducted in full costume with their precious props burned in front of them. It’s not just artifice which goes up in smoke either as the two are browbeaten into betraying each other’s deepest, darkest secrets.

Farewell My Concubine is a story of tragic betrayal. Dieyi, placed in the role of the concubine without very much say in the matter, is betrayed by everyone at every turn. Abandoned by his mother, more or less prostituted by the theatre company who knowingly send him to an important man who molests him after a performance and then expect him to undergo the same thing again as a grown man when an important patron of the arts comes to visit, rejected by Xiaolou when he decides to marry a prostitute and periodically retires from the opera, and finally betrayed by having his “scandalous” secret revealed in the middle of a public square. He’s a diva and a narcissist, selfish in the extreme, but he lives only for his art, naively ignorant of all political concerns.

Dieyi doesn’t just perform Peking Opera, he lives it. His world is one of grand emotions and an unreal romanticism. Xiaolou by contrast is much more pragmatic, he just wants to do his job and live quietly. On the other hand, Xiaolou refuses to perform for the Japanese (the correct decision in the long run), and has a fierce temper and ironic personality which often get him into just as much trouble as Dieyi’s affected persona. The two are as bound and as powerless as the King and the Concubine, each doomed and unable to save each other from the inevitable suffering dealt them by the historical circumstances of their era.

The climax of the opera Farewell My Concubine comes as the once powerful king is finally defeated and forced to flee with only his noble steed left beside him. He begs his beloved concubine to run to sanctuary but such is her love for him that she refuses and eventually commits suicide so that the king can escape unburdened by worry for her safety. Dieyi’s tragedy is that he lives the role of the concubine in real life. Unlike Xiaolou, his romanticism (and a not insignificant amount of opium) cloud his view of the world as it really is.

It’s not difficult to read Dieyi as a cipher for his nation which has also placed an ideal above the practical demands of real living people with individual emotions of their own. Farewell My Concubine ran into several problems with the Chinese censors who objected not only to the (actually quite subtle) homosexual themes, but also to the way China’s recent history was depicted. Later scenes including one involving a suicide in 1977, not to mention the sheer absurd horror of the Cultural Revolution are all things the censors would rather not acknowledge as events which took place after the birth of the glorious communist utopia but Farewell My Concubine is one of the first attempts to examine such a traumatic history with a detached eye.

Casting Peking Opera as the soul of China, Farewell My Concubine is the story of a nation betraying itself. Close to the end when Dieyi is asked about the new communist operas he says he finds them unconvincing and hollow in comparison to the opulence and grand emotions of the classical works. Something has been shed in this abnegation of self that sees the modern state attempting to erase its true nature by corrupting its very heart. Full of tragic inevitability and residual anger over the unacknowledged past, Farewell My Concubine is both a romantic melodrama of unrequited love and also a lament for an ancient culture seemingly intent on destroying itself from the ground up.


Farewell My Concubine is released on blu-ray in the UK by BFI on 21st March 2016.

Original US trailer (with annoying voice over):