Sometimes films just take your breath away. This is one of them, for me. I first saw it when it aired on Channel 4 in the UK in the early 90's and then recently managed to pick up a copy on video. After all these years, it's lost none of the impact it had on me when I first saw it.
"Rouge" tells the story of two doomed lovers in the early 1930's. He is a high class gentleman, Twelfth Master Chan Chen-Pang, the heir to three successful medicine stores. She is Fleur, a famous courtesan. His parents disapprove of both his choice of lover and also his passion for the Cantonese opera. They are horrified when he decides to give up the shopkeeping business in favour of becoming an actor and immediately order him to return to the family. So he and Fleur take their own lives, vowing to meet up in the afterlife and be together forever. Fifty years later, her ghost returns to the world of the living, still searching for her beloved Twelfth Master.
On the surface, it's a traditional Chinese romantic ghost story but there's far more lurking underneath. Essentially "Rouge" is a lament on a bygone age of pre-Westernised China, a yearning for a return to the old values, traditions and passions that are now lost beneath the neon lights and soulless rush of modern-day Hong Kong. It's also a lonesome mediation on the nature of trust and the complexity of human relationships with a tragic punchline and a strong sense of alienation running throughout.
Deeply melancholy, loaded with ravishingly beautiful imagery and haunting performances from the two gifted leads (Anita Mui and the ever-mesmerising Lesley Cheung), "Rouge" is an unforgettable, understated and utterly unique piece of filmmaking. A very strange, subtle blend of genres that floats around the mind long after the end credits have finished rolling. 9 out of 10.
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