Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sunday Movie Theater: Rouge 胭脂扣 (1988)

Heartbreakingly beautiful

A break from the regular review series to have a visit to the July edition of Sunday Movie Theater. ^^

Movie poster is from IMDB.

A ghost story this time, but one that involves very little horror like "Outpost" (2008). Instead, it's more of a tragic romance story with the supernatural as a minor storytelling device. ^^

Trailer of the movie.
Video clip is from Youtube. Follow this link to the website if you can't see anything.

"Rouge" (胭脂扣), a movie directed by Stanley Kwan (关锦鹏). Technical movie details can be seen on IMDB, while the entire story is up on the movie's Wikipedia page.

One of the most interesting features about "Rouge" is its story, which set in two different time eras, but both stories were being presented concurrently. The movie began with Yu Fa (played by Anita Mui) applying rouge to her lips, as though she was preparing to meet someone. The movie then transitioned to the 30s, showing the first meeting between Yu Fa and the Twelfth Master Chan Zhan Bong (十二少陈振邦, played by Leslie Cheung). After that, the movie jumped to the 80s, the present time in the context of the movie, with Yu Fa from the first scene shown searching for Zhan Bong at the press agency where Yong Deng (played by Alex Man万梓良) worked. While the story was mainly about Yu Fa's quest (in present time), the backstory of her romance with Zhan Bong, set in the 30s, was beautifully interlaced throughout the world movie. With both stories given equal importance, the whole movie feels like a composition of two movies that were interconnected. While the focus was different between the two stories, and with Yu Fa being the only recurring character in both sections, their presentation and the cast members' performance made them equally well done.

Bouncing off the previous point, the contrast between present time and the past was very well done in the movie. While the romance between Yu Fa and Zhan Bong, and the former's quest to search for him were central to the entire movie, there were plenty of scenes that showcased the conditions of Hong Kong in the 30s and the 80s. They were vividly captured on screen, and added a lot of interesting points to watch for in the movie besides the main plot points. While the opium house, opera house performance, and the upper class settings in the 30s might be a bit far-fetched for folks like me to imagine, the contrast of new and old in the 80s was not too far away from what I know about them, and they seemed really fascinating to me. ^^ As Yong Deng and his girlfriend, Ah Chor (played by Emily Chu 朱宝意) went on a quest to search for clues to help Yu Fa, their discoveries of old places and vintage newspaper articles, and even their daily life and work at the press company seemed like mini documentaries of old Hong Kong to me, and I like those parts in the movie very much.

The story of "Rouge" is quite simple and straightforward. Disregarding the supernatural element, it's basically a tragic romance story of a woman searching for her lost lover. It's the slow pacing of the whole movie that allowed the two stories to be presented compellingly and with great details. On that note, the slow pacing really helped to project the melancholic tone of the movie as well.

With the slow pacing of the movie as mentioned above, there was ample time given to the cast members to deliver their performance and dialogues in the different scenes. It's another important factor contributing to the movie's success, as the actors and actresses really drove the emotion of the different scenes. Anita Mui performed wonderfully in her role as Yu Fa. As a ghost in the present time of the movie, all she did was walk and talk for the most part, while in the backstory section, she sang and danced as well. The point is, with very little action, she was able to focus the display of Yu Fa's emotion and feeling through her expression and intonation, and to do it so well for the audience members to not only be able to relate to the character, but to feel sympathetic towards her as well. Leslie Cheung did just as well as Anita Mui for his role as Zhan Bong. Like Yu Fa, Zhan Bong was a character who projected the helplessness of an individual against the old Chinese societal system in the matter of relationship. His role was mostly confined to the backstory section, unlike Anita Mui who appeared throughout the movie. For that matter, I like Anita Mui's performance in this movie slightly better, but that preference could very well be due to my bias for her being one of my favourite female artists. ^^

Speaking of performance, the ending of the movie was the defining moment of the entire movie in my opinion. In terms of the story, it represented the end of Yu Fa's quest, but it also represented a revelation to her regarding her relationship with Zhan Bong, and the promise he gave her 50 years prior to that final meeting. Between the complete lack of background music, slow-paced scenes with moments of silence between them, Yu Fa's expression, an old, miserable Zhan Bong, Yong Deng and Ah Chor's helplessness, it was such a tragic conclusion to the whole story, but its presentation seemed so beautiful and compelling at the same time. In many ways, as an audience member, I share the same helplessness as Yong Deng. While the search for Zhan Bong was indeed a success, it was a tragic ending that seemed so unfair to Yu Fa. Then again, that revelation mentioned earlier on already seemed to be the best ending possible for the character.

It's also interesting that the final scene took place at a movie studio which showed the making of a ghost story in the background. The movement of the actress playing the female ghost in the background was sort of a reminder to the audience that Yu Fa was a ghost herself, but the whole setting of the movie set could also be interpreted as a reflection of the moment when she and Zhan Bong first met, when she performed to entertain him. On a deeper level, the opera itself could also represent that her love story with Zhan Bong was just as artificial as a film. With the slow pacing of the movie as mentioned earlier on, there are plenty of times for viewers to ponder more on the metaphors inserted in the different scenes in the movie. ^^

I have to admit, I cried the first time I saw that ending, and I cry everytime the movie reaches the end in all of my subsequent re-watches. The titular movie theme song, playing in the final scene and into the credits, summed up the story sadly, perfectly.

All in all, a very good movie this is. ^^ Having a female ghost in the story is not its focus at all. Instead, two intriguing stories set in different time periods, amazing performance from great actors and actresses, beautiful cinematography that captured the mix of new and old in Hong Kong in two different eras, and Anita Mui are the strengths of "Rouge". It's a very sad movie, but is very beautiful as well. ^^

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