Critics hailed Stanley Kwan’s genre defining ghost film Rogue during its Criterion Collection release as a beautiful allegorical melodrama, “the likes of which are no longer done in the West”. Bliss Cua Lim offers a reason why this is the case: “ghostly women embody a strong notion of spatiotemporal nonsynchronism—the existence of noncontemporaneous aspects of social life that cannot be fully translated into modernity’s disenchanted time.” The real Hongkong in 1934 is hardly a more enchanted time or place but in the optical unconscious of cinema, the city is reimagined metonymically as a grimy but elegant house of pleasures where mafiosos, businessmen, and untalented rich kids go to have fun. Leslie Cheung, HK cinema’s pretty boy plays Chen-bong, the scion of an entrepreneurial family who meets a haughty courtesan, named Fleur, played by Anita Mui. The courtesan beguiles Chen with a song and the possibility of another life in the theater. But unable to convince his family and the deeply patriarchal society of the legitimacy of their affair, they decide to commit suicide. Fast-forward to 1987, the courtesan makes an appearance as an eternally young ghost, to Yuan and Chun, a modern couple who live in Hong Kong under the clutches of neon; noisy, cramped and hectic. The courtesans’ ghostly desire contrasts the unpassionate engagement of the modern couple but we learn of some parallels as the courtesan’s love story is told through a series of flashbacks paced by the languid rhythm of an opium dream. The slowness of the unfolding is complemented by the omniscience of Kwan’s camera which takes us backstage to a popular traditional theater performance and bourgeoisie dinner parties.
The narrative trick of the film lies in extending this comparison between two kinds of lovers to the same but different cities where they belong. Fleur’s past was one where lovers were ready to commit suicide while the modern couple is devoid of such fire; they admit in their dialogue that they wouldn’t kill themselves for each other. This is underscored by the modern couple’s explicit sex scene that pales in intensity to the slightest brush between Fleur and Chen-bong. Passion is now a quality as alien as the cheongsam that Fleur wears against the concrete jungle of causeways and skyscrapers. Even as a specter, she is allergic to this dystopia and she is unable to survive under its daylight or partake of its pleasures. Increasingly burdened by the weight of her in-betweenness, she is unable to reconcile her existence in both the past and the present. An elementary school now stands in the brothel she worked for but this does not indicate that things are cleaner or better.
Chen-bong, whom we later find out lives in a decrepit film studio as an occasional bit player in HK films, represents the remnants of the past that continue to rot under the urban landscape. While capitalism deformed the city and its temporality; there are recalcitrant pockets that miraculously survive, such as the newspaper morgue and the antique shop, but they only serve to emphasize the scarcity of collective memory. The uncanny speed of Hong Kong’s transformation meant that the future collapsed over underdeveloped ghettos and unreconciled past lives.