Rouge (1988)

Directed by: Stanley Kwan
Written by: Lillian Lee & Yau Daai On Ping
Producer: Jackie Chan
Starring: Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Alex Man & Emily Chu

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Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1989:
Best Picture
Best Director (Stanley Kwan)
Best Actress (Anita Mui)
Best Editing (Cheung Yiu-Chung)
Best Original Film Score (Michael Lai)
Best Original Song: Yin ji kau (Rouge Arrest)
Music: Michael Lai
Lyrics: Edward Tang
Performed by: Anita Mui

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1989:
Best Screenplay (Lillian Lee & Yau Daai On Ping)
Best Actor (Leslie Cheung)
Best Cinematography (Wong Chung-Biu)
Best Art Direction (Pok Yeuk-Muk & Ma Kwong-Wing)

Award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 1988:
Best Actress (Anita Mui)

There's much talk about the downfall of Hong Kong cinema, which is true. We probably never again will experience something akin to the 80s era for instance, where mainly action cinema was thriving. Drama on the other hand had a strong flow well into the 90s and still continues to give us gems thanks to directors like Riley Yip (Just One Look) and Derek Yee (Lost In Time). Even if it may seem like a tedious wait sometimes between those mentioned gems, a good, hard look back in the rearviewmirror may be just what the doctor ordered. There's still much there to be grateful about, among those Stanley Kwan's Rouge. This is of course is a film that ultimately makes you miss, in a good and bad way, mainly because the stars Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui are gone. Their work is on the other hand immortalized in film and music, perhaps the most memorably in this true Hong Kong cinema classic produced by Jackie Chan.

In 1930s Hong Kong, the courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui) and son of a wealthy family, Master Chen (Leslie Cheung) falls in love but are forbidden to go through with a marriage by his family. In order to be together for all eternity, the two form a suicide pact and agrees to meet in another life, in another world. We then are transferred to the year of 1988, and arriving to place a missing persons ad in the newspaper is the ghost of Fleur, still walking alone...

With its Romeo & Juliet-esque storyline combined with a truly Chinese atmosphere, Rouge is a touching piece of cinema that has a quietness to it that is rather enchanting. Director Stanley Kwan is not interested in hysterics or melodrama. Instead this is a mellow, surely handled romance with, as you might've gathered from the plot synopsis, a supernatural flavour to it. The filmmakers choice to proceed veeeeery slowly may alienate some (and have according to online reviews not just for this Stanley Kwan film) but I found Rouge so captivating thanks to curiosity created at the beginning stages of the film. Fleur and Master Chen's first encounter leading up to the suicide pact reveals a relationship of the playful kind. She is a more classy courtesan with her guard up while he brings a slight arrogance that says that ''I can get what I want if I want it''. That creates a distanced chemistry that on some level works against the film since they are later described as such close lovers that they choose to take their lives together. That chemistry I'm talking about will make absolutely full sense to you by the end which makes Rouge another example of a film that has to be followed through until you make up your mind fully. When the film cuts to 1980s Hong Kong, we do not get a change of pace but a continuation of the story in the present with flashbacks occasionally entering the film. The structure by Kwan and the filmmakers I really like because it's not a given at any time how long or when we're going to spend time in the present or the past. It's the confident and even spot on handling by Kwan as to when to further develop that makes Rouge so interesting to follow through. As said, nothing is finalized until the final frame of the film and it takes a patient viewer. You just have to float with the narrative that slowly build towards a surprising climax that solidifies Stanley Kwan's great work in so many ways.

Kwan uses a limited amount of style and goes for full clarity instead, without resorting to full on, annoying exposition. The movie sure has that but part of the structure is about we and the present characters being told the story by Fleur. The content also speaks for itself thanks to the subtle but expressive nature of the characters, and of course the actors portraying them. We've talked about the flashbacks but Kwan also uses short bursts of them, which is an interesting effect. He either fades to black or seems to even kills all source lights, which creates the same effect. Other than that, because this is a character movie, his job is to let us have full focus on that and there's no need for anything but the camera to follow. That simple approach does come with some camerawork that does an excellent job showcasing the wonderful art direction and production design but at the same time employing eye catching, sweeping moves within takes that allows for a more spacious environment for the acting itself. A well deserved nomination for cinematographer Bill Wong. Also, the award winning editing by Cheung Yiu-Chung deserves mention especially in the handling of the ghost character of Fleur. Being the calm film it is, no special effects whatsoever are used but instead, smart cuts and a terrific direction of Anita Mui's movements creates the effect.

In addition to being an engaging romance that through the character of Fleur and the contemporary couple brings up questions about fate, karma and dedication to love, it's also a wonderful slideshow of Anita Mui's ageless beauty. Whenever Kwan focuses on her tragic or joyful face, and especially wearing the period wear, Anita looks so gorgeous that one can't help to be touched on a level of reality as well. Rouge joins the lists of Anita Mui performances that she will be fondly remembered for and it's great that those memorable ones such as July Rhapsody, Drunken Master II and Miracles are very much different kinds of performances. She was not just one thing in films. It's safe to claim that Rouge is her finest role, at least in my mind. Fleur is a courtesan with grace and true dedication for Chen in times where that dedication is likely not to be rewarded due to other families values. When we then encounter the ghost of Fleur, it's the tragedy, the floating nature to her entire being that's called for in addition to subtle, calm range of emotions that speaks volumes. Somewhat relegated to almost a supporting role, Leslie Cheung is the suave and handsome Master Chen. He starts off as rather arrogant but is revealed as someone willing to go against traditions both in love and in choosing his path in life. Leslie brings that very nicely to the table, backed up by director Kwan. It's really a credit to Stanley because he could've let emotional matters go the hysteric route in a story like this. Instead he creates a controlled environment that breaks out into larger moment only when really needed, something the actors respond to wonderfully well.

For the modern day couple, Kwan choose experienced TV- and movie actor Alex Man (Hong Kong 1941, As Tears Go By) and A Better Tomorrow's Emily Chu. In a way, they have little purpose other than to be the sympathetic couple that willingly helps and assists Fleur. There are moments between them though that draws parallels with Chen & Fleur and they ponder between themselves what lengths they would go to prove their love in 1980s Hong Kong. While their described purpose works well for what it is, it would've been nice to get more depth to their characters. That's not say that their respective performances are bad. They too blend in well with the subdued tone. Alex in particular has been given a dorky character image that makes him quite hard to recognize at first if you're referencing the mentioned roles in your head. Watch out for a brief cameo by Kara Hui as well.

Stanley Kwan's Rouge has a pace that may create an underwhelming feel despite you knowing it's a touching, supernatural romance playing out in front of you. The opposite is true though when examining what it is closely. Kwan has taken on the challenge, and succeeded, in reaching the hearts and minds of viewers willing to put up with 90 minutes of just quietly watching. It's not about how much he does, it's about what he does, masterfully so. While not THE masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema, it's nonetheless a classic that will be forever remembered for its lead actors, especially Anita Mui. Rest In Peace, both of you. We miss you.

The DVD:

Stanley Kwan's film finally got to look better than the but it's not without its problems. As part of their remastering of Hong Kong cinema classics, IVL presents the film in a anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Good news is that the print is spotless, sports good colours and sharpness. The colour scheme compared to prior dvd's appear more cold but seems suitable for the mood of the film. Bad news is that the top frame is noticeably cropped, resulting in a handful scenes appearing very cramped. Slight grain can be seen throughout most of the film also but whether or not that's an authoring flaw or due to the original negative, I can't say.

EDIT: Cinedie at Asian DVD Guide have examined the transfer more carefully and reveals more than just top frame cropping. Check out his comparison.

There's a plethora of sound options available, which is really overkill for a dialogue driven movie like Rouge. IVL have received much criticism for being unable to properly sync up the mono tracks on other releases but for this one they seem to have gotten it right. Having said that, Rouge hardly is filled with effects. Alternating between the Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 remix and the Cantonese mono, the former opens up the front stage slightly and features crisp sounding dialogue. When effects do hit, such as the fireworks scene, the added foley do distract and dialogue also is mixed much lower compared to the mono option.

During Anita Mui's introduction while singing opera, the mono track sounds incredibly muffled but it soon clears up and the presentation is very much acceptable. Slight distortion can be heard in the dialogue passages but personally, I prefer this over the remix. Cantonese DTS 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 are also included.

By comparing with Deltamac's subtitles (and also Megastar's original disc), it appears that IVL have created a new English translation for the film. Granted, the old one appeared quite solid in the grammar and structure department but the new one handles those aspects equally well, if not better. Regarding which one is the better translation...well, you'll have to ask a Cantonese speaker about that. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

IVL have put together a small extras package as well, main one being the newly filmed interview with director Stanley Kwan (11 minutes, 53 seconds). Optional English subtitles are thankfully available. Kwan crams a lot of good information in this all too brief chat including revelations of the original director and cast for the film, main themes, sets and final casting. It's a very good program but one IVL easily could've expanded into something more substantial.

The remaining extras are 2 trailers (original theatrical and a newly created one that plays up the ghost angle just a little bit too much) and a 22-page photo gallery (a slideshow option also exists for this). Promotional trailers for A Better Better Tomorrow, Once Upon A Time In China and Swordsman are also included.

The packaging itself holds a few items. Housed in a digipack fold out case with different front and back cover art, inside you'll find two small sized 24-page photo books containing images from various Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung movies respectively. Rouge gets covered more extensively and this is a nice inclusion. Two bookmarks can also be found among the physical extras, reportedly containing words from Stanley Kwan and screenwriter Lillian Lee.

reviewed at Kenneth Brorsson