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Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui in Rouge.

Chinese: 胭脂扣  
Year: 1988  
Director: Stanley Kwan Kam-Pang
Producer: Jackie Chan, Leonard Ho
Cast: Anita Mui Yim-Fong, Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing, Alex Man Chi-Leung, Emily Chu Bo-Yee, Patrick Tse Yin, Irene Wan Pik-Ha, Lau Kar-Wing (cameo), Kara Hui Ying-Hung (cameo)
The Skinny: Stanley Kwan's award-winning film about a ghost looking to reunite with her long lost true love is a certifiable Hong Kong movie classic. This already tragic love story is made all the more tragic by the untimely real-life deaths of its two leads, Hong Kong cinema legends Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung.
Review by

It's hard to believe that it's been a good twenty years since Stanley Kwan's Rouge was released in theatres. For those who are unaware of its reputation, the film garnered ten Hong Kong Film Award nominations and six wins, including prizes for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. Based on the novel by Lillian Lee, Rouge is - to put it crudely - part mystery, part Romeo and Juliet-style romance, and part good ol' fashioned ghost story. But above all, it's a fine showcase for one of Hong Kong's greatest actresses, Anita Mui Yim-Fong, in what many consider to be her finest role.

Plot-wise, Rouge intercuts between the past and the present, kicking off its supernatural love story in Hong Kong circa 1934. There, we meet Fleur (Anita Mui), an elegant courtesan who crosses paths with the wealthy Chan Chen-Pang (Leslie Cheung). The two share an instant chemistry and quickly embark on a love affair. Unfortunately, the happy couple faces a serious roadblock in pursuing a serious relationship thanks to Chan's disapproving family. As a result, the two lovers agree to a suicide pact in the hopes of reuniting on the "other side." Unfortunately, upon overdosing on opium, Fleur finds herself all alone in the next world. What the heck happened to her dearly departed lover?

The film cuts back and forth from 1930s era Hong Kong to some fifty-plus years later. In Hong Kong circa 1987, we meet Fleur once more. Although now a full-fledged ghost, Fleur has a very pragmatic solution to her lost boyfriend problem: she decides to place a missing persons ad in the local newspaper. This decision eventually results in a friendship with two journalists: the bespectacled Yuen (Alex Man) and his sassy girlfriend Ah Chor (Emily Chu). While searching for Chan Chen-Pang, poor Fleur discovers that much of the Hong Kong that she remembered has long since faded into oblivion, trampled by the wheels of modern progress. Will Fleur's quest to find her missing lover succeed? Yes, but not nearly in the way she or the audience expects.

All these years later, Rouge is a difficult film to review in large part due to both its overwhelmingly positive critical pedigree and the presence of two Hong Kong cinema superstars in top form (made all the more surreal due to their untimely deaths). What can one really say at this point that hasn't already been said? To focus on the "negative" for a moment, I would submit that the film's slow pace is somewhat problematic, considering the fact that Rouge is a detective story that apparently doesn't seem too concerned with giving away certain plot points early on (in dialogue, no less!). The nature of Fleur's death, the family's objections to her relationship with Chan, etc. - all of these facts are revealed by Fleur before we actually see them occur in the flashbacks. Dropping some of these hidden facts (which, admittedly, can probably be inferred) so early in the narrative in many ways works against the "slow burn" pacing of the overall film.

And while the "investigation angle" is the driving force of the plot, the characters that director Stanley Kwan chooses to accompany Fleur on this journey are woefully bland and uninspired. Granted, Yuen and Ah Chor are meant to be foils to the more passionate Fleur and Chan, but the characters are so underdeveloped and dopey (no thanks to the Steve Urkel-esque costume choices forced upon Alex Man) that the actors simply can't measure up to Anita Mui in terms of sheer screen presence.

And yet, Rouge still WORKS, and it's no doubt due to the strong performance of its leading lady. To put a finer point on it, Anita Mui is undeniably the heart and soul of this picture, and well-deserving of the Best Actress trophies she took home from the HKFA and Golden Horse Awards. Much of her performance resides in what is left unsaid, as Mui lets her expressions and gestures do much of the talking. While her role calls for her to be silent and still for much of the picture, there's an obvious emotional weight and vulnerability to her performance that's mesmerizing to watch. Let us not forget Leslie Cheung, who is requisitely suave in his role as Mui's leading man, although admittedly, he has considerably less to do in the picture than she does.

By story's end, Rouge raises a number of questions without being too heavy-handed (Does love really last forever? How far would you go for true love?), while also subtly exploring the differences between the time periods through simple juxtaposition, particularly in terms of contrasting societal attitudes toward love and marriage. Ultimately, the mystery leads to an ironic payoff that is both poetic and strangely satisfying. Although I don't quite hold Rouge in as high regard as most of my peers, I do recommend this arresting, dare I say, haunting film to any of the uninitiated Hong Kong cinema fans that are still out there. (Calvin McMillin 2007)

Awards: 8th Hong Kong Film Awards
• Winner - Best Picture
• Winner - Best Director (Stanley Kwan Kam-Pang)
• Winner - Best Actress (Anita Mui Yim-Fong)
• Winner - Best Editing (Cheung Yiu-Chung)
• Winner - Best Original Score (Lai Siu-Tin)
• Winner - Best Original Song ("Yin Ji Kau," performed by Anita Mui Yim-Fong)
• Nomination - Best Actor (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing)
• Nomination - Best Screenplay (Yau Tai On Ping, Lee Pik-Wah)
• Nomination - Best Cinematography (Wong Chung-Biu)
• Nomination - Best Art Direction (Pok Yeuk-Muk, Ma Kwong-Wing)
1988 Golden Horse Awards
• Winner - Best Actress (Anita Mui Yim-Fong)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Intercontinental Video Limited
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
DTS Digital Surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Stanley Kwan Interview, Photo Galleries, and Trailers
Collector's Box Includes Two Bookmarks and Two Small Photo Albums (One Each For Leslie Cheung & Anita Mui)
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

images courtesy of Fortune Star Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen