Red Dust

Reviewed by YTSL

"May you live in interesting times."  So reputedly goes an infamous ancient Chinese curse.   "I wish we were born ten years later.  Ours is an unfortunate generation."  Thus opines a character in the 1990 period piece which its director and co-scriptwriter, Yim Ho, described as "a very, very emotional film", made not too long after "the June 4th 1989 crackdown, and so it turned out to be maybe too emotional" (In Miles Wood's "Cine East", 151:155).

For those who are culturally removed as well as politically unaffected by the events of Tienanmen Square and others which took place a half century or so ago in Mainland China and form the movie's backdrop, RED DUST can come across as an overwrought and somewhat unbelievable melodrama.  The historic film's garnering eight nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards and eight awards at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival (Best Picture, Director, Actress for Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Supporting Actress for Maggie Cheung, Cinematography for Poon Hang-Sang, Artistic Design for William Chang, Best Costume & Make-up Design, and Original Score) bears testimony though to its having successfully struck a chord with some East Asian folk.

At the center of RED DUST is a character who is recognizably based on a Shanghainese author named Eileen Chang (one of whose works Ann Hui adapted into "Eighteen Springs").  Giving an extremely fine performance, Brigitte Lin brings to life this rather tragic as well as eccentric figure:  The child of a loveless marriage, whose father not only remarried but kept her effectively imprisoned up in the attic while he was alive; a novelist whose works of ostensible fiction contain details about her own life and person (something which is recognized by a male suitor who turns out to be married -- though estranged from his wife -- and, worse, a Japanese collaborator); whose best friend is not around as much as she would like, in some part because she has a boyfriend who is a resistance fighter during World War II and anti-government demonstrator afterwards.  Apart from her romantic entanglements, the trouble they bring and the pain they cause her, the protagonist also has to contend with at least twice suffering fates that could be said to be worse than death (in that she was unsuccessful in taking her own life), AND with living through the tumultuous years that saw parts of China under foreign occupation and civil unrest as well families along with territories get split up.
Sometimes, it is the case that fiction can be too uncomfortably close to reality for some people.  Considering when and where the film was made, the fact of there being two student activists (one of whom is portrayed by the luminescent Maggie Cheung; the other of whom is played by Yim Ho himself) being sympathetically depicted in it probably was as politically problematic as a Japanese collaborator being made out to be less a villainous than pathetic individual.  Indeed, Yim Ho has reported that:  "For allowing me to make RED DUST in China, some of the top officials in the film bureau were forced to sit down and write a lot of self criticism" (See Fredric Dannen and Barry Long's "Hong Kong Babylon", 1997:164).
It also has been said that truth can be stranger than fiction.  At the very least, when one considers the lives of certain key members of RED DUST's cast and their kin, quite a few events and actions depicted in the film become rather ironic and still more melodramatic.  For example, when watching the chaotic scenes of people desperately trying to leave for Taiwan ahead of the Communist takeover of China, it is hard not to think of the fact that the work's lead actress and actor -- Brigitte Lin and Chin Han -- not only hail from Taiwan but have parents who did flee from the Chinese Mainland around this time and for this reason (Not only that but Chin's father was a prominent Nationalist general and Lin's father a military doctor).  On a less political note, it also is difficult to erase from one's mind that the two who played lovers in RED DUST were a real life couple at the time that the movie was made (As such, there seems to be a particularly knowing as well as intimate feel to the pair's romantic scenes).
It might be due to my having a particular bias in favor of RED DUST's main but also primary supporting actresses.  Maybe it is because the key relationship in a film whose focus is a woman is that between two female friends.  Whatever the reason, I do think that the warmest as well as most charming scenes in this extremely personal and poignant feeling -- sometimes excruciatingly so, in fact -- production are those in which Brigitte Lin shares the screen with Maggie Cheung, and we witness their characters caring for each other and revelling in each other's company.  Frankly, my major regret about this moving work is:  Less that it could not be the epic that some people have detected that Yim Ho wanted it to be; but more that there were too few times that this charismatic duo were alone as well as together.


My rating for the film:  9.5