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Beyond the Male Perspective: Stanley Kwan's Film Adaptations of Novels

Written by Siu Heng Tell a Friend

Stanley Kwan's latest work Everlasting Regret has recently become the center of focus in the Chinese cinema scene. Apart from being an official selection for competition at the 62nd Venice Film Festival, the film has just won the Premio Open 2005 (Arte Communication) at Venice. Beginning his career as an assistant director, Kwan made his directorial debut Women (cast: Cherie Chung, Chow Yun Fat) in 1985 and then Love unto Waste (cast: Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung Chiu Wai) in 1986, establishing himself as the representative director in Hong Kong's feminist cinema.

Rouge: Ruhua's Obsessive Love and Nostalgia

Rouge (1988) marked a new stage in Kwan's career. Adapted from Lilian Lee's famous novel, the film revolves around Ruhua (Anita Mui), a prostitute in 1930s Hong Kong who fell in love with a rich man's son named Chen (Leslie Cheung). They committed suicide together as their love was forbidden by society. After waiting for Chen for half a century in the underground world, Ruhua decides to fetch him from the world of mortals. She meets Yuen (Alex Man), a newspaper worker who lives with his girlfriend (Emily Chu). Moved by this female ghost from the 1930s, they help her to look for Chen in the 1980s...

Though possessing of the same storyline, the film does not copy from the novel its single narrative point of view. Lilian Lee's Rouge tells the story from Yuen's perspective throughout and the reader has to follow him to uncover the story. However, Stanley Kwan makes use of the unique nature of the cinema medium and switches between modern metropolitan Hong Kong and decadent Shek Tong Tsui in the 1930s. While events in the present seem like Yuen's experience, the aestheticized past appears to be Ruhua's memory.

Historical discourse has always been male-centered, as "history" is indeed "his-story". Stanley Kwan, however, creates a memory of the city through a marginalized woman. The nostalgia in Rouge, instead of being a rational historical account of the 1930s, offers an alternative imagination of the past from the female perspective.

Various scholars read the nostalgic fever and the rise of ghost films in Hong Kong in the late 1980s as a response to the identity crisis and the fear of the unknown future in face of the 1997 handover. The recurrent motif of "50 years" in the film of course reminds us of Beijing government's political promise of Hong Kong to "remain unchanged for 50 years". In Rouge, the complicated nostalgic feelings are all entailed in the obsessive love of a miserable woman, who tells us "her-story" instead of "history".

Red Rose, White Rose: Meng Yanli's awakening of femininity

In 1990, Stanley Kwan made Full Moon in New York (Cast: Maggie Cheung, Sylvia Chang, Siqin Gaowa), a film about diasporic Chinese women. After that he brought the audience back to the 1930s Shanghai with Center Stage (cast: Maggie Cheung), a 1992 film on legendary actress Ruan Lingyu. Kwan reveals Ruan's tragic and ephemeral life with a complex narrative structure, interweaving footage from Ruan's films, documentary interviews, and Cheung's portrayal of Ruan. Then in 1994, he launched his next novel adaptation, Red Rose, White Rose, also set in 1930s Shanghai.

Turning Eileen Chang's novels into films has never been easy. Her meticulous depiction of women encompasses great tension as a character's actuality may be completely different from what is described on surface. Translating that to moving images risks the loss of complexities in the characters. When adapting her Red Rose, White Rose into a film, Stanley Kwan and scriptwriter Edward Lam made use of subtitles to incorporate text from the novel to describe a character, but at the same time showed another aspect of him/her in the visual. They thus preserved the overall impression of Eileen Chang's work.

Though Eileen Chang always narrates from a female point of view, her female characters seldom succeed in escaping the patriarchal power and they remain melancholic in the end (perhaps with the exception of Love in a Fallen City). Stanley Kwan's adaptation of Red Rose, White Rose, though presented via Chun-bao's (Winston Chao) first-person narration, shows the female characters' development of self-awareness in the erotic dimension, especially for Yan-li (Veronica Yip) if not Jiao-rui (Joan Chen). Beneath the traditional surface of the film lies an undercurrent of female autonomy.

In Red Rose, White Rose, Chun-bao's friend sublets a room to him but he seems more interested in his friend's wife Jiao-rui. When she decides to divorce her husband to follow Chun-bao, he fails to make that commitment. He then marries the characterless Yan-li but finds her so boring that he has to visit brothels frequently. Even if Yan-li feels discontent with his husband, she never escapes his control in the novel. The film, however, points to her growth of erotic desires with the juxtaposition of suggestive images and sentimental background music. Yan-li (and perhaps Jiao-rui also), whose changes are not subject to Chun-bao's power, enjoys some ambiguous freedom under patriarchy.

Lan Yu: Chen Han-dong and Lan Yu's same-sex love

Stanley Kwan revealed his homosexual identity through the documentary Yang +/- Yin. His feature films after coming out, including Hold You Tight in 1998 (cast: Sunny Chan, Chingmy Yau, Ko Yue Lin) and The Island Tales in 2000 (cast: Shu Qi, Michelle Reis, Julian Cheung, Osawa Takao, Elaine Jin), all contain obvious homosexual elements. In 2001 he turned the Internet novel Beijing Story into the film Lan Yu, finally focusing on a gay couple in one of his films.

According to Stanley Kwan himself, he has projected his own relationship with his boyfriend onto the same-sex love between Chen Han-dong (Hu Jun) and Lan Yu (Liu Ye) in the film. Homosexuality, in fact, threatens the definition of "male" under the patriarchal norm. Although Lan Yu does not tell a story from the female point of view, nor does it feature any female leads, its depiction of homosexual love can never come from the usual male perspective. Rather it appears more akin to the feminist stance, which subverts patriarchal hegemony.

Beijing Story was a popular novel in the cyber community about a rich businessman's love for a college boy that started with just a money for sex exchange. Stanley Kwan and scriptwriter Jimmy Ngai have removed from the original novel all the parts that aim at exoticizing gay men through picturesque description of sex, so that the audience can focus on homosexual love from a queer perspective. They have also deleted the part where Han-dong's wife frames Lan Yu, which they found too dramatic for the film. Lan Yu never smears a woman at the expense of highlighting gay love, and such sensitivity can be traced back to Kwan's feminist approach in his previous works.

Everlasting Regret: Wang Qiyao's view on Shanghai

Stanley Kwan returned to a simple narrative structure with Lan Yu, and Everlasting Regret is perhaps a homecoming journey in terms of motifs and thematic concerns. The 1930s Shanghai setting of Everlasting Regret is the same as Red Rose, White Rose. On the other hand, the nostalgic mood in describing the rapidly changing city echoes Rouge. Exploring changes of a city through the rise and fall of a Shanghainese woman reminds us of Center Stage.

Adapted from authoress Wang Anyi's award-winning novel, Stanley Kwan's Everlasting Regret retains Wang Qiyao's (Sammi Cheng) relationships with four men but takes away a lot of subplots, and even combines two characters into one. Her fall from glamorous days to a simple life takes place in the city of Shanghai, whose decline from prosperity was followed by a rise to affluence again. She seems to face all of this calmly, and even experiences the urban changes with indifference. But there is a subtle melancholy, especially when her loved ones keep on leaving her. While most parts of the film take place indoors, thus avoiding direct depiction of historical events, unrest in the city keeps seeping into Wang Qiyao's home. Like the novel, the film unfolds a delicate relationship between Wang Qiyao and Shanghai, embodying the changes of a city in the life of a woman.

However, Mr. Cheng (Tony Leung Ka Fai) takes on a more significant role in the film than in the novel. With Mr. Cheng's voice-over to narrate the whole story, it is questionable whether the film is told from Mr. Cheng's or Wang Qiyao's perspective. Such arrangement might be Kwan's attempt at freeing the film's narrative perspective from the gender dimension, although there are always other possible interpretations. The director also gives up complicated narrative structure and film language, but returns to the melodramatic tradition in terms of narration. Everlasting Regret may be Stanley Kwan's ultimate homecoming journey, or it could be an innovative attempt at recreating established form and content.

(Originally published in a.m. post Issue 18. Reprinted with permission.)

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Published November 26, 2005

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