Red Rose White Rose

Reviewed by YTSL

This visually distinctive 1994 work is Stanley Kwan's stylish -- and stylized -- adaptation of Eileen Chang's tale of a man who wants absolute control over females and two women -- a passionate lover who he called his Red Rose and the chaste wife he refers to as his White Rose -- who had contrasting parts in his life.  Featuring a copious amount of quotations on screen, it is a film that relies more than most others on written words.  When one adds to the equation the not insignificant amount of voice-over narrative sections in this high-brow feeling effort, the overall effect seems to be that the work's viewers get rather emotionally distanced from its main as well as minor characters; this particularly being so in view of the Shanghai born novelist's writing being ironic in style (Something I detected even before reading Mr. Kwan's opinion that this is indeed the case).

To be honest, I am not sure that this pervasive sense of detachment is a good thing.  In all fairness, it did allow me to be more observant of the visual details of this expertly lensed -- by Christopher Doyle -- costume piece without experiencing sensory overload.  This favored approach may also have ensured my greater appreciation of many of RED ROSE WHITE ROSE's printed observations and stated comments (which either originated from Eileen Chang or actually come from the more contemporary pens of co-scriptwriters Edward Lam and Liu Heng).  However, it all appears to have come about at the expense of my ending up having little sympathy for -- forget empathy with -- the interesting but not particularly understandable characters whose not very satisfied lives are the focus of that which can at times come across as a psychological portrait.  This is rather unfortunate since the individuals in question are in many ways a pretty intriguing trio.
At relevant points in RED ROSE WHITE ROSE, the film's audience is informed that Tung Zhen Bao is "from head to toe the archetypal Chinese man of his era" and that the period in question was one when "[p]erhaps every man has two...women, at least".  As it turns out, Winston Chao's hardly non-establishment character -- who is not adverse to seriously opining that "Everybody has a duty to society" -- is shown to have had multiple women in his life (in addition to his mother, whose influence ought not to be discounted).  The first two -- a Parisian prostitute, and his first love who he encountered while he was a student in Edinburgh -- of the four who impacted his emotional state more than others are shown only briefly.

The third important woman in Tung Zhen Bao's life is one whom RED ROSE WHITE ROSE's deceptively gentlemanly looking "practical man" (and his younger brother) is first introduced to as the wife of his best friend and host in Shanghai.  Coming as she does in the form of Joan Chen, she is the kind of daringly lively creature that many men find sexually irresistible.  The colorful Mrs. Wong Jiao Rui -- who is given to stating such as "I love doing the wrong thing" and "My heart is just a hotel" -- seemingly almost inevitably gets involved with the individual who observes of her that:  "She speaks her mind but her mind is still innocent and naive".  Too naive (or is it idealistic and hopeful?), as it turns out.

The same might also be said of Yan Li, the modest woman Tung Zhen Bao opts to take as his wife.  In almost every other way though, not-very-quotable she differs from the other females known to the film's main man.  This also is probably true about this character vis a vis all others who Veronica Yip has portrayed.  Hence its being so that on at least one level then, the section of RED ROSE WHITE ROSE in which she shares the limelight with Winston Chao is interesting to view.  Unfortunately, because her character is undoubtedly quirky but still oh so colorless, it pales in contrast to the portion of the production in which Joan Chen's character brightened up proceedings.  Consequently, even while I admired Veronica Yip's acting ability, I chaffed at the 123 minute long movie's devoting as much (its audience's) attention and time as it did to the joyless woman she was charged with portraying.
In summary then:  RED ROSE WHITE ROSE possesses a structure that theoretically makes quite a bit of sense.  However, the viewing experience turned out -- at least for me -- to be less than evenly satisfactory; with this filmic work getting off to an intriguing start and being entirely interesting for quite a while but losing much of my interest in its latter half before ending with what seemed to be an inappropriately abrupt whimper of a note.
My rating for this at times -- but unfortunately not entirely -- brilliant film:  6.5