Don’t Look Back: The Rose-Coloured Nostalgia of Rouge and Happy Together

Essay by Moira Henry

Art by Angie Dai

Nostalgia is a common theme across the Hong Kong cinematic canon, particularly in the New Wave films created during the transition period between the 1984 signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong. This essay will focus on how nostalgia is configured and located in Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1988) and Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997). In Rouge, nostalgia emerges from the temporal dislocation of Fleur (Anita Mui), with the linearity of time being fragmented as the setting alternates between Hong Kong of the 1930’s and the film’s contemporary Hong Kong. Nostalgia in this case is located at a specific point in the past, but embodied in the present by Fleur’s temporal dislocation as a ghost from the 1930’s haunting the contemporary world. Alternatively, in Happy Together, nostalgia emerges from Ho Po-wing’s (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai’s (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) mutual desire for an impossible return to an imagined closeness, which temporally dislocates nostalgia in the film. Though these configurations of nostalgia differ, the projections of nostalgia that manipulate linear timelines in both films grasp at Hong Kong’s collective search for a secure identity as a nation caught between two worlds. 

The constant shifts between past and present in Rouge are central to the nostalgia that is projected in the film. In her essay, “A Souvenir of Love,” Rey Chow describes these shifts as “beautiful golden colors [of the past] that contrast sharply with the mundane documentary tones of the present” (212), creating a sense of longing for the past and a sense of lack in the present. This sense of loss is reiterated by the film’s depiction of Hong Kong’s changing landscape, particularly in the shots that show what the various landmarks of 1930’s Hong Kong have become in the present day. For instance, there is a flashback to the Tai-Ping Theatre in the bus scene that cuts to Fleur’s saddened facial expression; in the following shot, it is revealed to have become a 7-Eleven. This is followed by a sequence that reveals multiple changes in Hong Kong’s landscape, with Fleur’s tearful observation that “It’s all changed now,” as she arrives at a present day Shek Tong Tsui. The bustling Kam Ling Restaurant of the past flashes to a lonely car passing by a closed bar in the present, and the flashback to the Yi Hung brothel is followed by a shot of a kindergarten in its place. Through these flashbacks, the film creates a sense of nostalgia for the Hong Kong of the past. 

However, Chow also notes that in Rouge, “nostalgia is not simply a reaching toward the definite past from a definite present, but a subjective state that seeks to express itself in pictures imbued with particular memories of a certain pastness” (215). That is, although nostalgia is seemingly located in the past, it is because of the temporal dislocation of Fleur and her unbelonging in the present that there is a greater sense of longing for an idealized past. Fleur is the vessel through which the viewer is able to access the memory of the past, therefore imbuing the past with Fleur’s sense of belonging to and longing for the past. Simultaneously, the fragmentation of the linearity of time through the imaging of Fleur’s memories exacerbates the sense of unease in the present that reflects Hong Kong’s precarious sense of identity during the transition period after 1984; Fleur’s general disorientation and melancholic search for the Twelfth Master in the present seems to both express hope for and challenge Hong Kong’s search for identity in its own past. That is, nostalgia only seems to be a way of looking to the future, inasmuch as the past presents itself as a point from which to move forward. This is signalled at the end of the film when Fleur is able to move on from her search for the Twelfth Master and the passion she projected onto the relationship, subsequently leaving the human world.

Similarly, Happy Together is interested in nostalgia as a place from which one must move on, also manipulating the linear progression of time to project this configuration of nostalgia. While the fragmentation of linear time in Rouge was used to create a sense of dissatisfaction with the present, Wong Kar-wai plays with temporality in Happy Together to highlight the reality of dissatisfaction in the fraught intimacy between Ho Po-wing and Lai Yiu-fai. In another essay by Rey Chow, she notes that “the nostalgia projected by [Happy Together] complicates the purely chronological sense of remembering the past as such” (34). In other words, in a nuanced differentiation from Rouge, nostalgia is projected as a “desire to return to… a fantasized state of oneness” (35) between the two lovers, rather than being a nostalgia for a tangible point in the past. This constant desire to return is evident in the repetition and recursion associated with Fai and Po-wing’s relationship as seen in the form of various motifs throughout the film, and particularly through Po-wing’s constant desire to “start over,” which further dislocates nostalgia from a distinguishable point in the past. Countering the desire to return is the inevitable violence of their relationship which the viewer witnesses on loop, revealing the flaws in both characters’ nostalgic perspectives of their relationship.

This temporal dislocation of nostalgia is reiterated in a scene towards the end of the film, when a memory of the couple dancing in their apartment is shown. The scene depicts a tenderness that is inconsistent with other depictions of physical intimacy between the couple throughout the film, suggesting that this is merely a snapshot or fantasy from the nostalgic perspective of Po-wing as he laments the end of their relationship. Rather than seeing this as an accurate representation of their relationship, the viewer sees the desire to return to “the flawless union among people… a condition which can never be fully attained, but which is therefore always desired and pursued” (Chow 36). However, Fai’s rejection of Po-wing’s final attempt to start over becomes a point from which they can move into the future. Fai thus rejects the nostalgic projection of their relationship, allowing himself to embrace an unknown future. This notion of facing uncertainty was pertinent to the film’s contemporary Hong Kong society, Happy Together having been released in 1997, the year of the handover. The film ends with a vivid image of forward movement as Fai sits in the front of a train speeding through Hong Kong in fast motion, suggesting the opening of possibilities in embracing an unknown future.

Hong Kong New Wave cinema’s interactions with nostalgia are not always located at a distinct point in the past, but do deal with Hong Kong’s future in an uncertain time. Nostalgia in Stanley Kwan’s Rouge is seen through the fragmentation of linear timelines through flashbacks showing the changing Hong Kong landscape, as well as through Fleur’s memories. Fleur’s temporal dislocation creates the sense of discomfort and unease that reflects Hong Kong’s anxiety during the transition period after 1984, with the past and nostalgic perspectives framed in opposition to the future Hong Kong. The notion of embracing uncertainty is also seen through the projection of nostalgia in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, wherein the film’s temporal dislocation of nostalgia reveals the flaws of a nostalgic perspective. Fai’s ultimate rejection of the nostalgic perspective presents a possibility for the future of Hong Kong in embracing a precarious identity and the unknown.

Works Cited

Chow, Rey. “A Souvenir of Love.” At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World.

Edited by Esther Yau, University of Minnesota Press, 2001, pp. 209-229.

—-“Nostalgia of the New Wave: Structure in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together.” Camera

Obscura: A Journal of Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, vol. 42, 1999, pp. 31-48.

Happy Together. Directed by Kar-wai Wong, cinematography by Christopher Doyle, edited by 

William Chang, Kino International, 1997.Rouge. Directed by Stanley Kwan, Golden Harvest, 1988.