In a February 2022 interview for The Criterion Collection, filmmakers Stanley Kwan and Sasha Chuk discussed Kwan’s career, mostly highlighting the 1987 film romantic ghost story Rouge. The film, along with supplemental materials including Kwan and Chuk’s interview, is on the schedule of The Criterion Channel’s August lineup.
“You shoot characters really well. You believe in the relationships,” Chuk says during the interview, noting Kwan’s focus on intimacy and human connection in many of his films.
While Kwan doesn’t like labeling himself — but recognizes that audiences may see that his films are often interested in the feminine and romantic — Chuk’s comment is true, especially regarding Rouge. In the film, Kwan is fascinated by the intricacies of melodrama between lovers. Wile Rouge may feel epic in its scope of time periods and otherworldly phantasms, it ultimately keeps us close to the romance between its characters.
Rouge centers much of its story in 1930s Hong Kong, following Fleur (Anita Mui), a courtesan at one of the region’s major teahouses, and her budding relationship with wealthy playboy Twelfth Master Chen-Pang (Leslie Cheung). Against floral wallpapers and inside cozy tearooms, the two fall in love despite reservations around social class or expectations. When Chen-Pang’s parents forbid the couple from being together, Fleur and Chen-Pang resort to suicide, believing they’ll reunite in the afterlife.
50 years later, a ghostly Fleur returns to the mortal realm to search for Chen-Pang, who never joined her after death. She meets journalist couple Yuen (Alex Man) and Shu-Hsien (Irene Wan), imploring their help.
To Yuen and Shu-Hsien, Fleur’s devotion is extremist. They resign themselves as too practical for such star-crossed nonsense. But in private, the modern couple wonders if Fleur and Chen-Pang are the epitome of love. “Would you commit suicide for me?” Shu-Hsien asks. Yuen responds: “Would we be that romantic?”
While dying for a lover isn’t an uncommon trope in cinema, how the lovers make it to that last resort can vary. In Rouge, romance is both alluring and tragic. The film’s couples find themselves enthralled with the idea of sole dedication. In other words, the love that binds them is unbreakable — and it is a priority to maintain it, to care for it, and, if necessary, to die for it.
Rouge explores that idea across its two time periods, weaving them together to contextualize both couples’ relationships. In the 1930s, Fleur and Chen-Pang’s coupling is delicate, surrounded by ornate tea sets and pastel paints. Art director Piu Yeuk-Muk’s experience with still photography shines here — every moment looks like a detailed photograph. Warm lighting caresses faces and shines through stained glass. Mirrors place characters in other areas of rooms, giving us a sense of space and dimension. Compositions combine colors and patterns, framing characters and their expressions.
In that style comes a detailed courtship. Across various sequences, Fleur and Chen-Pang complete performances to fall for one another. It begins in Rouge’s opening scene, when Fleur, dressed as a man and bearing little makeup, sings “Song of the Exile” to a group of guests. Chen-Pang arrives, enthralled with Fleur’s singing and masculine appearance.
The two face each other, with cinematographer Bill Wong’s camera wrapping around them and following their glances. Despite the intensity, the duo is playful — just as Chen-Pang joins in the song, Fleur declares, “People can be so sentimental,” to uproarious laughter from the patrons.
But as Chen-Pang courts Fleur unlike any patron has before, buying her an expensive bed and a rouge case and displaying a romantic couplet on the walls, the two let sentimentality build towards something greater. It culminates into their first night together. Surrounded by opium smoke, they consummate their relationship with vulnerability that contrasts Fleur’s relationships with other clients, who pay money just to touch her calves and glance at her neck.
Throughout this, Mui’s performance as Fleur remains understated, as if she’s hiding incredibly complex emotions just below the surface of her skin. Cheung’s work as Chen-Pang, too, is complicated. Both actors bring a sort of obscurity to what they express to one another and how they show their emotions.
As the months go by, Fleur and Chen-Pang’s romance grows beyond any ambiguity. They move in together and hope to marry. Fleur supports Chen-Pang’s theater acting career, standing by him while his parents denounce it and their relationship. When the couple sees no mortal future together and decide to commit suicide, their love burns quickly and roaringly. On their final night, they consume raw opium before going to bed, grasping each other as sweat beads on their foreheads and blood trickles from the corners of their mouths.
It’s a religious death — Wong’s camera tightens in on their faces, focusing on gasps and writhing movements as the stained-glass windows behind them frame their silhouettes as martyrs.
The short time Fleur and Chen-Pang have together is eroticized — we see them at peaks of romantic passion and whimsy. That’s not necessarily the case for Yuen and Shu-Hsien’s relationship. When we first meet them in 1980s Hong Kong, they’re surrounded by expansive urban life. Like 1930s Hong Kong, the world is full of details — although these details lack a certain poise. Everything feels cold. Bulky desktops and stacks of paper clutter any available surface; air-conditioning units poke out of office windows. Street lamps shine on concrete sidewalks, and stairs push deeper into the urban jungle.
If Fleur and Chen-Pang inhabit a pleasure garden, decorated with every color of the rainbow, then Yuen and Shu-Hsien find themselves in a world of gray practicality.
At their newspaper office, Yuen tries to get Shu-Hsien’s attention with a gift before she rushes out the door, heading downtown to report on a Miss Hong Kong Pageant scandal. Shu-Hsien is too busy with the hustle and bustle of work. The camera fixates on her as she spares a moment to receive whatever the gift is.
It’s a new pair of shoes, something Yuen claims Shu-Hsien needs because her old ones are worn out. It’s thoughtful, if a bit boring, something a well-established couple would give one another. “Why didn’t you ask me what my favorite color was?” Shu-Hsien asks. “Your shoes are worn out,” Yuen responds. Here, there’s little decorum between the two — gift giving isn’t a way of wooing one another.
Indeed, Yuen and Shu-Hsien are already comfortable in their relationship, having been together for four years; there’s little need to spice things up by giving expensive bobbles. Marriage isn’t on the horizon because there’s little pressure for either to do so. The couple already lives together and focuses on their careers first. It’s a stark contrast from Fleur and Shu-Hsien’s whirlwind relationship: the two only know each other for about six months before deciding to spend eternity together.
When Fleur comes back to the mortal realm to find Chen-Pang over 50 years later, Yuen and Shu-Hsien help her out of morbid curiosity. They’re fascinated by her ghostly presence, which isn’t really ghostly at all. Fleur’s look hasn’t changed: her hair, floral dress, and striking red lipstick remain perfectly done. No ectoplasm can be found, no wispy light radiates from her skin. Fleur simply looks like she’s wearing a costume, masquerading as a gimmick from the past.
And in her time on Earth again, Fleur reconciles with her displacement in the modern world. In flashes of nostalgia, she remembers old restaurants and theaters before seeing the shopping malls and stores that now replace them. The teahouse she worked at? Now a kindergarten school. Time has changed most things, but it hasn’t changed Fleur. She exists as a bridge between the two times, a memory of the past now searching for meaning in the present.
But beyond their interest in Fleur the phantom, Yuen and Shu-Hsien also agree to help her because of their growing intrigue with Fleur and Chen-Pang’s relationship. When they hear the story of her ill-fated love affair, they become enthralled with how wild and passionate it is. Prostitutes, playboys, leisure opium smoking, and colorful teahouses are mythical. “Why did you commit suicide for love?” Yuen asks, as if it’s a foreign concept to him. Fleur and Chen-Pang’s love is like a smutty novel, something Yuen and Shu-Hsien can’t stop reading.
For all the differences between these two couples, they both find the love between Fleur and Chen-Pang — an unadulterated, perfect, and unquenchable bond — enchanting.
Part of that may come from Yuen and Shu-Hsien’s predictable lives. In one scene, the couple lies in bed, talking about Fleur. Surrounded by bland, gray walls and only lit by a simple overhead lamp, they imagine themselves in Fleur and Chen-Pang’s roles. Shu-Hsien role-plays what it would be like to fall in love with Chen-Pang; living fast and dying for love excites her. The couple has sex, unaware that Fleur is watching them. Then, we cut to Fleur and Chen-Pang having sex back in their teahouse bed.
Here, editor Peter Cheung’s decision illustrates Rouge’s interest in connecting these couples. It speaks to Kwan’s modus operandi for intimacy between characters and in relationships. And it asks a host of questions: Are Yuen and Shu-Hsien aroused by Fleur and Chen-Pang’s relationship? What makes the relationship erotic to them? Is it a fantasy for them, an escape from their reality?
Of course, the reality of it all isn’t as compelling. When Yuen and Shu-Hsien learn that Fleur actually poisoned Chen-Pang because of her fear that he may survive the opium poisoning, and therefore leave her alone in the afterlife, they’re not sure what to think — especially considering that Fleur’s fear came true. Perhaps the couple’s heated passion wasn’t all it seemed. “If he cared about me, he’d have tried again,” Fleur cries. “But he preferred to live and leave me behind.”
Here, the cracks in Fleur and Chen-Pang’s relationship show. Chen-Pang survived the poisoning, moving on with his life while Fleur remains but a distant memory. For Chen-Pang, their romance was fleeting; for Fleur, it was everything.
Fleur finally finds Chen-Pang, old but alive, on a movie set. Among stunt actors, heavy makeup, and kitschy costumes and sets, Fleur confronts him, returning his gifted rouge case and renouncing their plan to reunite in the afterlife. She departs back to the spirit realm, leaving him exasperated. Fleur moves on — both from the past and her relationship. And with her gone, Yuen and Shu-Hsien are left sober. Those stories about gift giving and passionate sex turn sour; Fleur and Chen-Pang’s romance ended in tragedy. Even as Rouge tries to sell an all-encompassing romance to us and its couples, it reminds us not to fetishize what is too idealized to be reality.
That message is put quite pointedly earlier in the film. When Chen-Pang and Fleur spend their first night together, he comments on her many appearances. “You have many different looks,” he says. “Which one is real?”
Fleur rolls onto the bed and stares at him. “The real thing is the ugliest.”