(Red Rose) … Joan Chen
(White Rose) … Veronica Yip
Tung Chen-pao … Winston Chao
Tung Tu-pao … Zhao Chang
Rose … Shi Ge
Wang Shih-hung … Shen Tonghua
Wu Ma … Lin Yanyu
Hui-ying … Shen Fanqi
Tailor … Tong Zhenfen
(Mandarin and Shanghainese dialogue)
Hong Kong helmer Stanley Kwan’s “Red Rose White Rose” checks in as his most emotionally resonant and deeply realized work since his name-making “Rouge” some seven years ago. Though very different in look and subject matter to the earlier pic, this $ 3 million Shanghai meller about a man torn between two different women is a movie of almost pure metaphysics, with an emotional undertow that’s refreshing after Kwan’s desiccated recent pix like “Full Moon in New York” and “Center Stage.” Pic should flower on the fest circuit and prick considerable interest and debate among Asia buffs. Offshore theatrical biz looks more problematic, though careful handling and slight trimming could help.
For those acquainted with the works of veteran novelist Eileen Chang, this is the most successful translation of her oeuvre to date. Other pic versions of her work, like Ann Hui’s “Love in a Fallen City,” have concentrated more on the period meller aspects. With “Rose,” scripters Edward Lam and Liu Heng (latter a frequent collaborator with Zhang Yimou) have come up with a treatment that is faithful to the original 50-page novella and replicates Chang’s metaphysical approach in movie terms.
Two-hour film falls almost exactly into two equal halves, the style of each reflecting the personality of each woman in the life of Chen-pao (Winston Chao). After a brief section detailing his early sexual experiences as a student in Edinburgh and Paris, pic settles down in Shanghai in the early ’30s, where Chen-pao arrives with his brother, Tu-pao (Zhao Chang), staying at the apartment of a friend, Wang (Shen Tonghua).
Wang’s wife, Chiao-jui (Joan Chen), is a self-possessed but emotionally volatile woman and, as soon as Wang skips off to Singapore on business, she and Chen-pao are slowly drawn into a passionate affair, with him nicknaming her “Red Rose.” For an emotional control freak like Chen-pao, the affair is torment, a sign of weakness; for a woman like Chiao-jui, who plays men’s hearts like her drawing-room piano, it’s the peak of happiness.
When Chiao-jui announces she’s asked her husband for a divorce, Chen-pao cracks and is hospitalized after a street accident. First half ends with him breaking off the affair and vowing to start over in his life.
Second half quickly sketches the new Chen-pao, a rising businessman who rapidly courts and weds the coy Yen-li (Veronica Yip), who becomes his “White Rose.” From a poor background, this child-woman is determined to be the model wife — quiet, unquestioning, devoted.
Pic leaps forward to wartime Shanghai, 1943, with Chen-pao now the archetypal family patriarch and Yen-li gradually going off the rails as he carouses and whores away his leisure hours outside the home. Yen-li has a nervous breakdown but recovers, and even starts a clandestine affair with her tailor (Tong Zhenfen). Pic ends with an ironic encounter between Chen-pao and his Red Rose, Chiao-jui, on a streetcar one day.
The film reflects the characteristics of each femme: Red Rose’s half is lensed in reds and ochres, is tightly framed and heavy with closeups; it’s accompanied by atmospheric scoring that gives the whole amour fou an almost operatic quality. Second half is bright, colorful and lustrous, with beautifully composed medium and long shots.
Kwan and his team have come up with an equivalent of Chang’s balanced, deceptively pure prose style that’s staggeringly successful, with immaculate lensing by Oz-born Christopher Doyle (who’s worked with Edward Yang, Wong Kar-wai and Stan Lai) and production design by Kwan regular Pan Lei that’s almost entirely studio-created (in Shanghai). Effect is to build a self-contained universe in which emotion is the paramount force. The fact that events take place against one of the most turbulent periods of Chinese history is almost totally disregarded in both dialogue and visuals.
Problem is that much of Kwan’s hard work will go unrecognized by most auds unacquainted with the original literary work. Some will be put off by a large amount of distracting captions during the first half plus a voiceover (by Chao) talking about the main character in the third person. During the second half, there are virtually no captions, and the emotional tone is much cooler and less involving.
Taiwanese thesp Chao (“The Wedding Banquet”) is well cast in a difficult role. It’s the women who drive the film and, as the quirky, monomaniac Red Rose, Chen makes one of the best showings of her career. As White Rose, former Hong Kong sex star Yip, despite obvious Mandarin dubbing, is impressive in an almost faceless role.
Alongside Doyle’s camerawork and Pan’s production design, Taiwanese composer Johnny Chen’s score is an equally dominant partner in the mood. English subtitles, though OK, could be improved.