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Review: Rouge (1988)


Title: Rouge (1988)

Genre: Fantasy, Romance

Director: Stanley Kwan

Stars: Leslie Cheung, Emily Chu, Alex Man, and Anita Mui

Grade: B+

In a Nutshell:

One night in 1934, rich playboy Chan Chen-Pang (Leslie Cheung) pays a visit to an up-scale Hong Kong brothel, where his friends are waiting for him. Chen-Pang shows up late, just as the group is eating and listening to a song performed by one of the prostitutes, Fleur (Anita Mui). Chen-Pang falls in love at first sight, and after some wooing, the two eventually become a couple. Due to their differences in social status, however, Chen-Pang’s parents disapprove of their relationship. Since they can’t be together alive, Chen-Pang and Fleur decide to commit suicide, so they can unite in the afterlife.

After their deaths, Fleur waits and waits for Chen-Pang’s spirit, but he never arrives. Desperate for answers, Fleur comes back to the earth as a ghost, finding that fifty-three years have passed since her suicide. The first place she visits is a newspaper office, where she asks a journalist named Yuan (Alex Man) to place an ad for Chen-Pang. Yuan doesn’t think anything odd about this pale woman dressed in old-fashioned clothes, and heads for home after he’s done at work.

On his way back, Yuan is followed by Fleur, who can’t make any sense out of ‘80s Hong Kong. Yuan takes her for an annoying eccentric, but while riding the bus together, Fleur reveals that she’s a ghost. Back at his house, Yuan and his girlfriend Chor (Emily Chu) end up agreeing to help Fleur. Before Fleur has to return to the afterlife, the trio have only a few days to discover what’s become of her long-lost love.

The Critique:

Produced by Jackie Chan, and the winner of a string of awards after its release, Rouge is considered a classic of ‘80s Hong Kong cinema. It’s a ghost story, a mystery, and a costume romance, set in two different time periods, and told in non-chronological order. It’s a weird mix of a movie, but its hodgepodge of different elements works out pretty well.

For the most part, the non-linear structure is engaging, adding to the mystery of the plot. The movie consciously makes the Hong Kong of the two time periods very different. The city of the ‘30s, with its opera houses and opium dens, feels lush and magical. It’s nostalgic, yet because of the circumstances surrounding Chen-Pang and Fleur, tragic at the same time. In the ‘80s part of the story, the city is instead depicted as soulless. Hong Kong is now a modern and hollow place, where the human relationships are just as empty.

The problem with such a contrast is that the two halves of the story just aren’t equal in quality. Both are good, of course, but I found myself liking the ‘30s part much more. Chor and Yuan simply aren’t as interesting as Chen-Pang and Fleur. “I am jealous of Fleur,” Chor admits at one point, “I admire her. The things she dared to do, I would never do.” At the same time, the reveal of what’s happened to Chan-pen ultimately shatters the nostalgia of the ‘30s sequences, revealing the past to be as fake as the present.

By the end, Rouge comes to be a powerful reversal of what we typically expect from nostalgic and romantic stories. While it’s inconsistent at times, it definitely deserves its classic status, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything else like it.

To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix:

To my knowledge, Rouge has never been released on home video in the United States. Fortunately, Amazon Video has the movie available to stream, and it’s even free at the moment for Prime members. (Giving you all the more reason to watch it.)

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