Red Rose White Rose (1994)

Directed by: Stanley Kwan
Written by: Edward Lam
Producers: Wang Hoi & Wu Kao Hsiung
Starring: Winston Chao, Joan Chen, Veronica Yip, Hua Shen Tong, Chang Zhao & Lin Yanyu

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1995:
Best Actress (Joan Chen)
Best Art Direction (Lai Pan)
Best Costume & Make Up Design (Lai Pan)
Best Original Film Score (Johnny Chen)
Best Original Song: Mui Gwai Heung (Rose Scent)
Music & lyrics: Johnny Chen
Performed by: Sandy Lam

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 1994:
Best Actress (Joan Chen)

Awards at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 1994:
Best Screenplay (Edward Lam)
Best Actress (Joan Chen)
Best Art Direction (Lai Pan)
Best Costume & Make Up Design (Lai Pan)
Best Original Film Score (Johnny Chen)

Rich playboy Tung Zhen-Bao (Winston Chao - The Wedding Banquet, A Little-Life Opera) has made a vow to himself to walk his own very path in life, especially in regard to how he should treat women. He looks for an ideal way of living and while he does go to prostitutes, he's known to be a gentleman of the highest order. His shell is broken when he moves in as a tenant with his old friend Wang Ze Hong (Hua Shen Tong). There his eyes fall upon the wife, Wang Jiao-Rui (Joan Chen - Twin Peaks, Temptation Of A Monk) and they soon engage in a forbidden romance. As long as he dictates all actions, the path will not be blocked. However Wang Jiao-Rui begins coming out of her own shell and displaying actual feelings. Something that can potentially ruin all laid plans...

"The red rose eventually becomes no more than the splattered blood stain of a mosquito on the wall. The white rose shines in the dark. After marriage the white rose is no more than a grain of rice that sticks to your shirt. But the red is really a mole on your chest, close to your heart." - Unnamed narrator of Red Rose White Rose.

Always referred to as a maker of women films, I'm not disagreeing on that and certainly now Stanley Kwan enjoys a newly found freedom/creativity as an openly gay filmmaker but I pride myself though on making my own observations. Rarely if ever have the term women films cropped up in a review of mine centering on a Stanley Kwan film and outside of the mention here, the examination of his 1994 movie Red Rose White Rose will be filled with what I feel and "know". Just in case all this wasn't clear from previous write-ups...

It's not entirely ironic then but fact of the matter is that Red Rose White Rose primarily is a complex study of male ideals, embodied by Winston Chao's character. Kwan uses his reserved cinematic language within lush images by cinematographer Christopher Doyle to invite those of us who wants into the layered and evolving portrayal of Tung Zhen-Bao, a man, according to the various title cards throughout, searching for his ideal. At the beginning, he's spending time with prostitutes but is described as a true saint and gentleman. There's no reason not to believe this as Joan Chen's Wang Jiao-Rui enters the frey and even one of the crucial title cards explains Tung's desire not to interfere in business not his own.

But we as a human race have instincts, basic ones for instance and Tung is soon taking advantage of the attraction between him and Wang. All while still doing this on his terms to become and find an ideal. No one ever told him though that ideal is defined in contrasting ways and that it's ok to stray in order to progress. When the game is not played on Tung's terms however, we really see the dark facets of his psychology that is so prevalent in the film. Furthermore when go into act two where it's Veronica Yip as the female center instead of Joan Chen, Stanley Kwan uses the period setting to draw pitch perfect analogies to modern life. Many couples become couples to make a mark on life that's either predestined or simply the only choice to go along with your career path. No one ever told them or Tung that humanity isn't born out of this and as these things go, when the truth hits you, it's going to hurt...

Stanley Kwan probably does know the infamous rumour surrounding the difficulties of bringing novelist Eileen Chang's material to the screen (1*) but he showcases a great confidence in cramming together a rich content extracted perhaps only partly from the novel, under 2 hours. Tone is of that low-key kind that attracts a specific audience, like any notable genre trait does really. Kwan then lets us know through welcome subtle strokes where the crucial story and character beats are. But thankfully few things that fly by you so Kwan isn't sinking down to a kids mentality level to get his layered points across. Aided by Christopher Doyle's wonderful cinematography, stripped of much primary colours to evoke the atmosphere of the time, Doyle is allowed to be playful with light but never at the expense of the storytelling. Rather it's the epitome of enhancing it. A great combination. The production is in other technical areas also spot on, as per Kwan's direction laid back to not overtake the narrative. That's especially good since Kwan is drawing parallels to time before and after the periods we experience in the film. I can almost swear the design is so simple in shots that it uses painted backgrounds of the old school kind!

Being at times a tragedy and a soap opera, the calm nature of Red Rose White Rose has to be transferred onto the actors. It may almost seem to the layman such as myself that it's the easiest acting choice to do little but "never state what you can imply" is THANKFULLY the immortal quote that is running through the trio of performances in this film. Joan Chen possesses the needed sexiness and playful aura since she is an out of touch, overseas educated woman with a free spirited side to her. Men are drawn to her like magnets for very good reasons but the only end result that can come out of that is the satisfaction on a very primal level. Tung isn't about to let her dictate his life path but she's got sincere reasons to do so. Another primal instinct is love and it shows a progress in the character of Wang that doesn't take place in the entire character gallery. A crucial point of the film and very exquisitely hammered home via Joan's performance.

Winston Chao rises to the challenge as well, never being forced by the Edward Lam penned script to be verbal about any character traits as it is very much an inner journey and quest for that ever so expandable definition of ideal. Chao keeps his balance just right between having audience sympathy and hatred launched towards him as Tung is a character getting himself into life facets that backlashes onto him. Finally there's Veronica Yip (unfortunately dubbed though) who had a genuinely great track record already at this point (2*). Something she radiated on screen and something Stanley Kwan surely had taken notice of. We get very little setup for Meng Yen Li but what Yip does is to take on simple behaviour that speaks volumes about the almost childish naivety and superstitious side of Meng. She also seems like one just on automatic in life, getting married, having kids and instead of finding out about life, only take walks in it within a small bubble. I'm returning to the word progress and there's surprises in all character arcs to be had, Yip nailing hers as well.

Remarks like arty, boring and stiff probably would be launched at Red Rose White Rose had it gotten wide attention. But as always, Stanley Kwan isn't seeking a larger, new audience but instead to please an already established one. That crowd will gladly take in the quite challenging nature of Red Rose White Rose. A film that deals with human behaviour when trying to define a life path, in a complex and intriguingly portrayed way, complemented by a cast of note that Kwan works with to a desired, low-key effect. Low attention span? Stay away! If you however loved Rouge and subsequently films such as Full Moon In New York and Lan Yu, Red Rose White Rose represents another fine accomplishment by Stanley Kwan. I've now forgotten The Island Tales... for now but then again it's thoroughly assuring to know Kwan has one of the most consistent filmographies around.

The DVD:

Winson presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.97:1 approximately. Despite having rule breaker Christopher Doyle behind the lens, the widescreen transfer is overmatted from either a 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 framing, creating some cramped top- and bottom compositions in the process. Print wear is evident and while the specifically muted colour palette seems fairly well represented (at times print quality changes quite drastically for the better!), the transfer lacks much fine detail and sharpness.

The film was shot mostly in Mandarin synch sound and according to the credits, also mixed in Dolby Stereo. Winson merely offers up a 2.0 mono rendition of that track and it's a shame because music plays a part in creating atmosphere. Otherwise the soundtrack sounds clear outside of some crackles and one instance of inaudible dialogue. A 5.1 option is also included and while the remix opens up the soundstage, it takes the dialogue forward to the point that it can be heard in the surround channels constantly! Same options exists for the Cantonese dub.

In an odd twist of ingenuity, Winson offers up subtitle options (traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese and English) to specifically be played with the respective Chinese language tracks. If this means different translations, I can't say but timing is probably one aspect that doesn't get thrown off therefore. The English option has a few grammar errors but maintains a high standard otherwise. There are no extra features.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) Other works of hers that have reached the screen includes the Ann Hui directed Love In A Fallen City, starring Chow Yun-Fat and Eighteen Springs.

(2) After the Category III streak of films that among others included Take Me and Pretty Woman, Veronica left her mark via her performances in Call Girl 92, Love Among The Triad A Roof With A View and 3 Days Of A Blind Girl. Subsequent Yipster notables are Mother of A Different Kind and Scarred Memory.