Red Rose White Rose (1994)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-04-18
“Red Rose White Rose” is a tale of wasted lives and hollowed out people. We follow the rise and collapse of Tung Jan-Biu, masterfully played by Winston Chao Wen-Hsuan, an outwardly successful Chinese businessman completely undone by his insatiable need to possess and discard women. Tung has little control and less understanding of the demons that possess him. He is handsome, wealthy, and always presents himself perfectly, which is also his main problem. He is all presentation, all surface flash with an emotional life so repressed that he can no longer experience any simple human feelings. He is detached from those who should be closest to him—his brother, his wife, his lover, his best friend. This is represented by Tung’s steady rise in the business community—his public self—while at home is wife is going insane—his private self.

Images and devices highlight this split. Title cards, much like those of silent movies, appear regularly, reminding us that this is cinema and not real life. Voiceovers fill in some of the plot and foreshadow other parts and also function as distancing devices. One title card tells us that Tung is “head to toe the archetypal Chinese man of his era” having been educated in England, he takes care of his mother and brother, is practical and very hard working, so even the language used on the title cards reminds us of his alienation and isolation, “archetypal” not being a word one expects in that context and one that loads the hopes and expectations of the entire Chinese nation onto the protagonist.

Both Tung and Wong Giu-Yui, in an understated masterpiece of acting by Joan Chen, show the centrifugal pull of East and West on Chinese of their age, era and social class. Wong is an overseas Chinese who has married Tung’s best friend and now lives with him in Shanghai. She makes it clear that she doesn’t like much about China, although she does like the attentions of Chinese men when her undemanding husband is traveling. Mrs. Wong is an accomplished pianist, a skill more common among upper class women in America or Britain than in China, and plays often throughout the movie, this diagetic music both supplying and extending the score. She speaks Chinese to the servants, English to her current lover. Her life at first seems even more meaningless than Tung’s since she has real focus outside of her huge apartment, spending her time shopping and in casual sexual affairs, often with men otherwise close to her husband but we see through her that Wong’s life is just as banal. Being successful in business is simply something he does to provide funds and opportunity for his increasingly bleak sex-driven existence.

The cinematography is breathtaking; the set design and art direction is exquisitely detailed and they serve each other very well. Mirrored surfaces are everywhere; much of the action takes place as if behind a scrim or screen, possibly another metaphor showing how the characters are unable to really see themselves. The colors are muted, even washed out; rain falls constantly, large rooms are barely illuminated by a few small lamps. Important things happen in the shadows while that which occurs in sunlight or brightly lit wedding halls are only there for show. “Red Rose White Rose” is a lovely movie to look at.

Veronica Yip Yuk-Hing may not the actress one first thinks of for the role of Meng Yan-Li, Tung’s repressed and pitiable wife. She gives a muted, almost muffled performance, heartbreaking in its quiet agony and despair--the audience is very much on her side when she gives birth to a daughter. Unlike Tung and Mrs. Wong, Yan-Li isn’t able to paper over her fear and helplessness with mindless affairs nor is she able to detach herself from her surroundings. When she can’t take the misery any more she literally retreats to the bathroom when her husband leaves, even taking her meals there, to the shock and disgust of their servant. Unlike Tung her trajectory is upward from this nadir. Yan-Li is a difficult character to like but we want to see her—or someone—pulls themselves from the pit created by Tung Jan-Biu.

“Red Rose White Rose” is not without it faults. Kwan’s pacing is self-indulgent and the film often drags; some scenes could be shorter and many of them could be simpler and more effective. His meticulous attention to detail sometimes becomes a fussy delight in minutia. The voiceovers would have been twice as effective if there had been half as many of them—he doesn’t trust the audience to understand the points he is making and uses the voiceovers to hammer things home.

Stanley Kwan Kam-Pang and Lam Yik-Wa are in territory defined by recent masters of domestic tragedy Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter. While only an understanding of the original language of the screenplay would allow one to compare “Red Rose White Rose” to Williams or Pinter (or Albee, Miller or Rattigan) that characters experience the same passionless yet frenzied lives of those created by the older playwrights and screenwriters.

Reviewer Score: 7