RED ROSE, WHITE ROSE (Hong mei gui bai mei gui) B+
Hong Kong Taiwan (120 mi) 1994 d: Stanley Kwan
Maybe every man has had two such women ⸺ at least two. Marry a red rose and eventually she’ll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is ‘moonlight in front of my bed’. Marry a white rose, and before long she’ll be a grain of sticky rice that’s gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark just over your heart.
⸺Red Rose, White Rose, opening line from Eileen Chang’s novel, 1944, appearing midway through the film
Adapting a 1944 novella/short story by Eileen Chang, the same author of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Se, jie) (2007), while a decade earlier Kwan was an assistant director to Ann Hui’s version of Chang’s LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY (1984), yet here Kwan has produced a literary work in much the same vein as Fassbinder’s EFFI BRIEST(1974), which is to say literature commenting on earlier times has been transported to contemporary times, finding parallels in each era, though Kwan takes liberties from the original text and may actually subvert Chang’s original intentions. Chang’s work reflects her own experiences in Shanghai and Hong Kong prior to the Communist takeover in the late 40’s, two cities that during her lifetime underwent some of the most modern transformations in human history, where the Western model was clearly emulated in what became highly cosmopolitan cities, with people from all over the globe living there. During the time of Chang’s writings, however, Shanghai was occupied by Japan while Hong Kong was a British colony, where this is one of the few Chang works that actually scrutinizes a lead male character, offering a merciless description of male and female relationships in a changing China, reflecting the moral disintegration of men caught up in a Shanghai on the cusp of transforming into a modern society. While supposedly an idealized portrait of a Chinese modern man, what it essentially amounts to is an existential portrait of a womanizer, where one can easily imagine Marcello Mastroianni in the role. What’s unique here is the sardonic tone throughout, in the same vein as Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975), literally mocking the male effort to lead a good and respectable life. Played with utmost sincerity, always formally dressed in suit and tie, Tong Zhen-bao (Winston Chao) has been educated in the West (in England) during the 1930’s and narrates his role, describing his erotic adventures with a friendly yet common girl with easy relations with men as typical of the West but unheard of in Asia. He freely mingles with prostitutes, yet time there is temporary, regretting never being able to obtain total control over the situation, vowing from the outset that this is his ultimate goal. Kwan places throughout highly decorative title cards onscreen with quotes from the book written in very elegant calligraphy, even offering an English translation to imprinted Chinese text, giving the appearance of turning the pages and reading a book, which allows viewers to share Zhen-bao’s train of thought as the film progresses while also retaining the author’s intent. The red rose describes the woman of elicit passion that every man yearns for, but does not marry, or even bring home to meet the family, as that role is reserved for the pure and innocent white rose with a spotless reputation and a cool demeanor. In this world, ironically narrated and described from a patriarchal male perspective (mixing misogyny and nationalism), men are free to roam as they please while powerless women remain restricted and trapped by society.
From the outset, one can’t help but be impressed by the fluid camerawork by Christopher Doyle which is simply astonishing, offering a deeply rich, beautifully composed color palette with extraordinary use of light, using shadows, window frames, and mirror reflections of illuminated faces and bodies in dimly lit rooms, literally saturating the opening section in red, while also capturing the changing mindset of Zhen-bao, where the appearance of his surroundings corresponds to his feelings, including broken mirrors, often swirling into hallucinogenic territory. Returning to Shanghai after university, Zhen-bao and his younger brother Tu-bao (Zhao Chang) are guests in the home of a friend, Mr. Wang (Hua Shen Tong) and his flirtatious young wife Jiao-Rui (Joan Chen, winning Best Actress at the Golden Horse Awards, while also winning Best Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Make-Up and Costume Design, and Best Original Film Score by Johnny Chen), whose beauty instantly stirs emotions in him, so Zhen-bao discreetly sends his brother to live at school while Mr. Wang is away on a business trip to Singapore, leaving inflamed passions to volcanically erupt with his wife, who literally exudes sex and sensuality. Darkly lit, unable to tell whether it’s night or day, Zhen-bao at first pretends to be a gentleman, remaining at arm’s length, but his demeanor changes instantly, where Jiao-Rui is the epitome of a red rose. Shot in a dreamy fashion, alone in a darkened room playing a rhapsodic version of The Fragrance of Roses theme song on piano, with the music representing her interior awakening, as if fully flowered, Jiao-Rui’s face is lit, but shadows make it appear she is caught in a web, yet this is how Zhen-bao arrives home after work, sitting next to her, both seemingly entangled in the same web, as they rush into a steamy relationship together, shot under a very eroticized orange lens exaggerating her aroused passions, which had been lying dormant prior to that. While she has a teasing personality, initially ignoring his kisses, cleverly challenging his motives and intentions, her curiosity gets the better of her, wrapping herself around Zhen-bao, falling under his spell, where their bodies and souls are inseparable. Knowing what he is doing is morally wrong, he nonetheless proclaims good intentions, wanting to be a good citizen and contribute to the nation’s progress, giving what he can back to his mother, who relies on his support, so for all practical purposes he appears to be a good man, yet we’ve seen what lies underneath, where this benevolent side hides his real intent, which is to gain the upper hand and with it, total control. So he’s shocked when Jiao-Rui proclaims she’s contacted her husband and asked out of the marriage, opening up the door for them to be free, which sends him into a furious denouncement, angered at her thoughtlessness, not realizing how this would affect his societal position. He was fine when they were just playing around, but to do so publicly would be unacceptable, so he slithers away like a petulant child losing at his favorite game. The intoxicating style in this section is what 35mm filmmaking is all about, richly expressive and evocative of a distant historical era.
Moving ahead in time, Zhen-bao is successful at work, having established a reputation for being diligent and hardworking, earning the respect of his younger coworkers who find him old-fashioned, but trust his judgment. In the interim, Zhen-bao is seen going out to the movies with a new woman, watching THE YOUNG MISTRESS’ FAN (1939), an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, a play on moral values adapted to Shanghai, showing how easily people can be deceived. At home he has the perfect complimentary wife, Yen Li (Veronica Yip, who ironically got her start making adult films, as did actresses Pauline Chan and Shu Qi, yet roles like this paved the way for mainstream success), whose face rarely changes expression, yet she is docile and obedient in every way, with her husband treating her like a servant in her own home, never offering her even a hint of respect, as it’s clear he has finally obtained total control, but has little happiness to show for it, as their sex life is cold and passionless, where she remains aloof and indifferent, as there’s simply no place for her desires. His demeaning treatment causes unexpected psychological anguish and suffering, with Yen Li spending a massive amount of time hidden in the bathroom, as if frozen in shame, where it’s clear Zhen-bao despises her, returning to his philandering ways with prostitutes, spending most of his earnings there, leaving little left for his family, which now includes a young daughter that he completely ignores. After the birth of the baby, in a humorous aside, both mother-in-law’s move into their home, yet end up squabbling about the baby’s name until both are asked to leave. The moral of the story here is that success doesn’t bring happiness, yet Zhen-bao proclaims to the world that he has a perfect wife and a perfect family. By ignoring his wife so completely, being totally absent from the home, it actually removes Yen Li’s straightjacket, suddenly making her own choices, finding her own friends, and making something of herself (through subjectivity comes autonomy?), developing a life of her own that her husband is blind and completely oblivious about, as if living in two separate worlds. This is the picture of a happy marriage in modern society, where to Zhen-bao, highly successful at work and valuable to the nation, his family life is just a façade, like a decorative magazine spread shown in glossy photos, yet utterly meaningless to him, especially when his daughter routinely stumbles in miscues during her disjointed efforts to play The Fragrance of Roses theme song on piano, a constant reminder of what he’s missing, while to Yen Li her family is her salvation, where she’s free to make her own choices, so long as it doesn’t anger the emotionally volatile Zhen-bao, who often returns home drunk and in the mood for slapping her around. Her worst fear is to be reincarnated into the next life as the same couple, as that is quite literally a hell on earth. After the gorgeous sensory overload of the first section, the slowness and stark emptiness of the second section comes like a slap in the face, offering a heavy dose of grim reality. By chance, Zhen-bao and Jiao-Rui meet again on a trolley bus, with unremarkable results, though she seems content, showing signs of maturity and wisdom, causing a jealous spark, so true to form, despite his boorish and despicable behavior, Zhen-bao vows to change his ways and become a decent man of good character.