REAL THINGS ARE ALWAYS UGLY. Murmured by a character in Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987), these words double as a commentary on the director’s broader filmography, marked by restless expeditions across the gossamer boundary between fiction and reality. Content at times to dwell inside comforting, cathartic artifices, such as the thundering melodrama of Lan Yu (2001), at others Kwan turns a more skeptical eye on the conventions of genre, as in his snaking metafiction Center Stage (1991). This conflicted attitude toward the templates prescribed by commercial filmmaking was characteristic of the New Wave that rippled through Hong Kong’s movie industry starting in the early 1980s, one that included Wong Kar-wai and, in its earlier phase, Ann Hui and Tsui Hark. Exemplary of this movement, Rouge finds Kwan borrowing the structure of a ghost story to explore how the pressures of modernity penetrate and reshape even the deepest regions of one’s innermost desires.
Fleur (Anita Mui), a courtesan, falls for a wealthy heir named Chen-bong (Leslie Cheung) amid the opium-soaked luxury of the 1930s. Thwarted by his disapproving parents, the lovers plan to kill themselves together and reunite in the afterlife. During this fever dream, an abrupt cut to the glittering Hong Kong skyline hits like a splash of cold water, crashing through the voluptuous exuberance of the past to reveal an austere, sepulchral present. The camera swivels here to a different couple, Yuan and Chu (Alex Man and Irene Wan), a pair of eminently reasonable journalists who couldn’t be farther removed from the self-destructive Fleur and Chen-bong. One night, Fleur appears under the harsh fluorescence of the newsroom to place an ad for a missing person. Chen-bong has stood her up in hell, and fifty years after her suicide, she’s returned to the mortal realm to find him.
Fleur’s ghostly condition is peculiar, rendered with a specificity that recalls the multifarious variety of spirits enumerated in Chinese folklore. Her theatrical makeup and iridescent cheongsam flag her as ontologically out of joint with her surroundings, like a cardboard cutout placed before a scenic landscape. The material world tries to spit her out at every turn. She can’t be exposed to daylight, and when she tries to take a bite from an apple, a fount of blood spurts alarmingly from her mouth. But neither is she wholly spectral, gifted with the ability to walk through walls. The mechanics of her embodiment are more mysterious; sometimes able to traverse a room with superhuman speed, at other times she’s burdened by the weight and textures of corporeality (at one point, Chu caresses Fleur’s cheongsam, praising the fabric’s quality.) Rather than hovering beyond the physical universe, she seems to nestle tentatively inside it, her ghostliness an unstable alloy of past and present.
In this way, Fleur has much in common with Hong Kong as it is portrayed by Kwan, who eschews the kind of nostalgic longing familiar from the films of Wong Kar-wai for something more original. In the fifty years since Fleur’s death, the city-state has undergone a drastic transformation (for starters, the brothel where she worked has been replaced by an elementary school). But Kwan’s vision of a modernizing Hong Kong is marked less by a clean wiping away of what came before than by the stubborn, lingering pockets of a recalcitrant antiquity. In a thrift shop, Yuan and Chu find a newspaper that carries Fleur’s 1934 obituary. The shopkeeper points out that those tabloids, once worthless, now enjoy the status of artifacts from a bygone era. The speed of progress results in a relentless cycling of Hong Kong’s physical affordances, whereby they simply “do not stand long enough to acquire the feeling of permanence that in turn gives way to nostalgia before they too are demolished,” as the cultural critic Rey Chow has written. What Yuan and Chu discover is not just a clue that unlocks the mystery of Chen-bong’s whereabouts, but also a mongrel temporality deformed by capitalism, in which the present has arrived before the remnants of the past have even decomposed.
And as they proceed deeper into the city, it becomes clear that the amphetamine pace of historical change has transformed not only the concrete environs of Hong Kong, but the interior terrain of its denizens as well. What at once troubles and tantalizes the modern couple is the reckless intensity of Fleur and Chen-bong’s ardor; their attempts to understand it brush up against a beguiling otherness that defeats their comprehension. They ask each other, “Would you commit suicide for me? Would we be that romantic?” No. The defoliated and cautious affections of modern love inevitably pale against Fleur’s all-consuming desire. (Kwan’s emotional topology of neoliberalism contrasts with that of his contemporary Johnnie To, whose spectacular two-part rom-com Don’t Go Breaking My Heart envisions the hypercapitalist fantasia of Hong Kong’s financial sector as an arena for unleashing masculine virility in cartoonishly titanic proportions.) At one point, lying in bed, Yuan and Chu become so aroused just by discussing Fleur’s plight, vicariously imagining what they would have done in her position, that they end up having sex—the first time we’ve seen this couple evince anything resembling physical attraction. For Kwan, the lurid dramas of history function as stimulants for modernity’s neutered passions.
Fleur eventually finds and confronts Chen-bong, who turns out to have survived the suicide attempt, going on to squander his family’s fortune. The trio finds him straggling along as an extra on the set of a wuxia movie. That he would end up in the film industry, of all places, suggests an effort to recapture the Technicolor vibrancy of a vanished era, the glories of cinema compensating for a dull and disappointing present at the end of history. Kwan sharpens this self-reflexive critique further by aiming it squarely at the viewer of his own film. As Fleur approaches Chen-bong, Kwan intermittently cuts away to reverse shots of Yuan and Chu breathlessly watching the drama before them unfold—framing these characters, in a Hitchcockian gambit straight out of Rear Window, as moviegoers in front of a screen. If we’ve already seen the consummatory power that this kind of voyeurism exerts over the young couple, Kwan now turns the lens around on us: inviting us to consider the question, suddenly and unnervingly personal, of how cinema salves the ugliness of real things.
Rouge was rereleased by the Criterion Collection on June 21.