First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲, Stanley Kwan, 2018)

First night nerves posterStanley Kwan returns to the director’s chair after a lengthy hiatus with a cheeky piece of self-referential meta comedy revolving around two “stage sisters” and their parallel quests to seize the spotlight in the increasingly competitive and celeb obsessed Hong Kong entertainment industry. As implied by its Chinese title “Eight Women, One Stage”, First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲) is an almost exclusively female affair in which straight men barely feature, but for as much as it heartily embraces the cattiness of backstage life it is also keen to affirm the many ways in which women support and nurture each other even if it is clear that the arts are not always as liberal as one might expect them to be.

Kwan begins in high camp as the diva actresses square off during a tense press conference for an upcoming play which marks the long awaited comeback of veteran actress Xiuling (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) who abruptly retired some years previously, notably playing opposite the slightly younger starlet, Yuwen (Gigi Leung Wing-kei), many accuse of stealing her spotlight (and thereby forcing her off the stage). The behind the scenes gossip makes Two Sisters the hottest ticket in Hong Kong, which is all very good news for Xiuling’s sister-in-law Cong (Angie Chiu) – a wealthy Shanghainese heiress and theatrical impresario producing the play, some say, as a personal favour following the death of her brother in a recent plane crash which has become a minor scandal seeing as he died alongside his American mistress.

A canny business woman, Cong is not above pitting her two stars against each other as a means of getting bums on seats but she also needs to make sure the show goes on which is difficult when Yuwen, still insecure in her star billing, is intent on proving she’s not playing the second lead by constantly upstaging her co-star. Yuwen, it has to be said, is the less sympathetic of the pair – cast early as a divaish upstart who finagled her way into showbiz with sex appeal, while Xiuling remains the dignified, wounded star laid low by life. The truth is, of course, more complex as the two women circle around each other before reaching a kind of equilibrium born of mutual understanding and a healthier professional rivalry.

Before that, however, the two stars occupy two very different camps each with their own retinues. The assistants – Mainlander Nini (Qi Xi), a relative of Cong, and former pool hall girl Yilian (Catherine Chau), support their respective mistresses in different ways but are each responsible for and reflective of their emotional difficulties. Yilian, in a heartfelt conversation with the otherwise perspicacious Nini, explains that she puts up with Yuwen’s sometimes divaish antics and is happy to act as an all purpose maid because Yuwen has also been loyal to her – supporting both herself and her son even after she became famous, making plain that Yuwen is, deep down, a sincere and caring person. Xiuling, meanwhile, is cast as somewhat cold and distant, keeping Nini at arms length and the relationship professional despite Nini’s, as it turns out, entirely accurate characterisation of her strangely intense friendship with adoring lesbian heiress “Master” Fu Sha (Bai Baihe).

Despite the supposed liberality of the arts, Xiuling is not the only one to experience mild discomfort with homosexuality even if her coming around to a surprise announcement from her son eventually gives hope to the lovelorn Sha whose confused grandmother has offered a vast bounty in the hope of hooking a prime son-in-law in a ripped straight from the headlines subplot. Transgender playwright An (Kam Kwok-Leung) encounters frequent transphobic slurs passed off as an extension of divaish lovey banter and is never fully accepted as a woman by her colleagues, subtly hinting at the extent to which LGBTQ issues still struggle for mainstream acceptance.

Underneath the high camp and beautifully pitched melodrama, Kwan makes space for subtle barbs towards the creeping influence of the Mainland in Hong Kong cinema as Yuwen irritatedly admits she’s considering learning Mandarin while outraged that producers on a previous film had the audacity to dub her dialogue and insisting everyone stay in Hong Kong to watch the Cantonese version. Behind all the bitchiness and backstabbing, there is real affection for the Hong Kong entertainment industry if tempered by a mild anxiety for its future as exemplified by the strangely warm closing scene in which the two divas sit shoulder to shoulder appreciating the beauty of Victoria Harbour while acknowledging their own small role in ensuring it survives.


First Night Nerves screens as the opening gala of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at BFI Southbank on 2nd May where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

Women (女人心, Stanley Kwan, 1985)

Women posterThings are changing in ‘80s Hong Kong, but when it comes right down to it are there really any more choices than there were in the past? Stanley Kwan would become known for his fiercely female led filmmaking and his debut, Women (女人心), is indeed a statement of intent if heeling close to the Shaw Brothers house style and possessed of a particularly mid-80s kind of cynicism. Marriage falls under the spotlight but for all of its minor oppressions and petty aggravations the net seems almost impossible to escape.

Kwan opens with a strangely cheerful family scene which quickly turns sour as housewife Bao-er (Cora Miao Chien-Jen) is excluded by her husband, Derek (Chow Yun-Fat), and son, Dang-dang (Leung Hoi-Leung), who close the bathroom door on her before declaring a pissing contest. Irked, Bao-er finds herself mildly enraged by the sight of her husband’s undies and decides to take this opportunity to tell him she wants a divorce. She’s found out all about Derek’s fancy woman Sha-niu (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) and has had enough. Decamping to her mother’s with Dang-dang in tow, Bao-er finds herself the latest member of her friends’ “forever happy single women’s club” but remains conflicted when it comes to considering the further direction of her life.

The “forever happy single women’s club” is itself somewhat confused in its outlook in that most of Bao-er’s friends are not really intending to remain single forever but are hoping to find a new partner, if perhaps also enjoying playing the field while they look. None of them are really very happy with the status quo and the various get-togethers at which they enjoy lavish buffets and copious amounts of alcohol are mostly filled with bawdy discussions about men and sex, much to the consternation of the rather uptight Bao-er. 

In fact, Bao-er’s “refinement” seems to be one of the chief issues in her marriage which is perhaps why Derek has found himself intwined with a clingy free spirit who quickly moves into the family home and does her best to stake a claim on little Dang-dang but is unwilling to keep house with the consequence that the apartment is quickly overrun with old newspapers and empty food cartons – a sight which fair breaks Bao-er’s heart when she’s forced to visit only to be presented with some of Sha-niu’s patented “spicy soup”. During a candid conversation with her mother, Bao-er reveals that throughout her married life she’d gone to great lengths to preserve her feminine mystique only for Derek to take off with a woman prepared to let it all hang out. Her mother, broadly supportive of her choices, advises her to think carefully about her future. If the marriage was unhappy then it’s best to call it quits, but if Sha-niu is just a passing fad then perhaps she’s one worth putting up with in the absence of other options.

Bao-er’s mother seems to think that ignorance is bliss when it comes to a healthy marriage, but as a “modern” woman, Bao-er expected more. Even so, despite not requesting alimony (she only wants money to cover Dang-dang’s expensive private school fees), we don’t see Bao-er looking for work though it’s also clear she isn’t looking to remarry in the immediate future. Like many of her friends, Bao-er seems to have her doubts about living as an “independent” woman and continues to be irritated by Derek’s relationship with Sha-niu even while attempting to firmly close the door on her marriage.

The end of the relationship does however give her an opportunity to consider what it is that she wants, even if middle-class conservatism ultimately wins out. This is particularly true of an unexpected attraction to a lesbian friend which she chooses not to pursue seemingly because of the social taboo. Despite being fully out and accepted by the group, Terry (Cheung Yin-Gwan) is also pitied by some of the other members who believe she is locked out of the conventional family life most of them are looking for because she is looking for a woman and not a man. Even if it’s true that Bao-er can only really be fully herself with her female friends, she and the others still hanker after male companionship and do not feel complete without it.   

The major theme which emerges is that marriage and family are essential, if imperfect, and must be maintained even if perhaps superficially as the closing text which conveniently condones Derek’s poor behaviour while allowing Bao-er her “revenge” implies. A slightly cynical point, to be sure but undercut by Kwan’s sense of empathetic irony which asks what other real choices Bao-er has while refusing to condemn her for the ones she eventually makes. Socially conservative as it may be, the fact remains that possibilities are bleak for women of a certain age in ‘80s Hong Kong which remains a playground for men like Derek while women like Bao-er and her friends are left with only complicit means of personal rebellion.


Women screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival on 5th May at King’s College London where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)