Different Modernities, Alternative Imaginations: Variant Ways of Embodying Imagined Nostalgia in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Rouge

In Walter Pater’s famous conclusion (1839-1894) to his book The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1893), he lauds experience itself, rather than the fruits of experience, as the ultimate goal of living. A life well-lived is one filled with “constant and eager observation,” or in other words an ever-present awareness of the world around oneself. As the most famous line of his conclusion argues, “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” The intensity of the words Pater chooses for this sentiment, such as “burn,” “gemlike,” and “ecstasy,” reinforce the kind of passionate, emotionally-substantial, ever-present and aware lifestyle that Pater believes exemplifies the life well-lived.[1]

In the century following the publication of Pater’s work, two films produced in very different contexts both agree with Pater’s assessment but lament the seeming impossibility of leading such an emotionally-present, intense life in the modern world. American director Joseph Mankiewicz’s (1909-1993) film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), which takes place in England, centers on a love story between a young widow named Lucy Muir and the ghost of the former owner of her new house, a sea captain named Daniel Gregg. Rouge [胭脂扣] (1988) , a much more recent film by Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan (关锦鹏) (1957-), similarly focuses on a “love story” of sorts between the ghost of a courtesan from 1930s Hong Kong named Fleur and her former lover. In both films, the ghost characters embody the contemporary, living characters’ yearning, a kind of imagined nostalgia, for an emotionally intense and passionate life that they have never personally known because it has disappeared with the advance of the modern world. For different reasons, the burning, gemlike life that Pater idealizes is portrayed as incompatible with modernity in both films, accessible to contemporary characters only through their relationships with the ghosts Daniel Gregg and Fleur. Because I will dwell on this concept of “living life to the fullest,” as I will call it, at some length throughout this paper, I want to clarify exactly what I mean by the term. The life that both films yearn for and glorify is one in which people live life to the fullest emotional extent possible, exploring the full range of their passions without attempting to stifle or block their sentiments. In every moment, they are emotionally aware—they do not hide or gloss over emotions, and their minds do not wander from the present moment. They fully experience every instant of their emotional lives. Not only does this mean that both ghosts are passionate people, but it also indicates that in the distant worlds they represent, them and people like them are capable of relationships that are at once deep, intimate, and totally emotionally invested while also frank, honest, and untainted by any kind of end other than to fully emotionally experience every moment together and in life. This is the kind of lifestyle that contemporary characters in both films yearn for and find inaccessible, except through the imagined nostalgias embodied in the two ghosts. I will in the remainder of the paper refer to this lifestyle simply as “living life to the fullest.”

However, though the ghosts in both films represent imagined nostalgia for the same kind of lifestyle, they embody this concept in different ways. Captain Daniel Gregg, the model of a stereotypical seaman, is lively, rogueish, and rough-around-the-edges. He scoffs at social convention, frequently telling stories and using expressions that make the Victorian-era widow Mrs. Muir blush. His interactions with her stand in stark contrast to the civil, colorless conversations she engages in with every other character. Fleur from Rouge emits a completely different aura. She is quiet, melancholy, and elegant in her movements. Her reserved exterior reinforces the depth of the passion for her lover that burns within her, making her emotion nearly theatrical in its intensity—it consumes her character. The stark contrast of her pale skin, bright red lipstick, and darkly-colored traditional Chinese dress further add to her dramatic, grand, and elegant appearance. The passionate love simmering just beneath her stoic figure emphasizes the grandeur and power of love in 1930s Hong Kong, a love that the contemporary couple Yuen and Chor find is inaccessible in their present-day Hong Kong.

Taken together, I argue that these two ghosts complicate the concept of imagined nostalgia by demonstrating how even nostalgia for the same “object,” in this case the experience of living life to the fullest, can take on different forms depending on the historical, social, and cultural circumstances in which it is produced. Both films demonstrate a yearning for an emotionally passionate existence that seems somehow out of reach in modern life, but because of the different forms of modernity in each film, the way in which this nostalgia is manifested differs greatly. Captain Gregg’s frank demeanor provides a refreshing respite from Victorian-era England’s emphasis on restrictive, stifling codes of civility within relationships. In comparison, Fleur’s embodiment of a life lived to the fullest emphasizes the kinds of deep, intimate connections made possible in the environment of 1930s Hong Kong that seem impossible to achieve in the busy, bustling world of the 1980s. Thus, imagined nostalgia for the same concept in both films takes different forms depending on the particular ways in which each film’s concept of modernity stifles efforts to experience life to the fullest emotionally.

Stifling Moral Codes Versus Life on the Sea in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

From the beginning of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, it is clear that Mrs. Muir feels stifled by the civilities and politesses of Victorian-era middle-class society. The film opens with her informing her deceased husband’s family that she intends to use her own income to move out from under their care to an isolated house she has found on a cliff overlooking the sea in a town called Whitecliff, far away from London society. Her in-laws are offended by her decision to strike out on her own, which goes against decorum and decency and will embarrass the family. Mrs. Muir’s sister-in-law rebukes her for leaving their home when her late husband is “barely cold in his grave,” though Mrs. Muir defends herself by replying that he has “been dead nearly a year.”  When the sister-in-law argues that she should still have consideration for her husband’s memory, Mrs. Muir responds that she does not see what her decision to move out has to do with Edwin.

From the disapproving tone of the sister-in-law’s comment, it seems that it is expected of women that they respect and honor their husbands, even to the point of continuing to live with their husband’s family long after he has passed away. Mrs. Muir’s sister-in-law is pointing out that in refusing to stay with the family of her deceased husband for very long, Mrs. Muir is breaking one of the many unbreakable, implicit codes of civility and morality in Victorian-era England. It makes no difference whether Mrs. Muir is leaving for an isolated house overlooking the sea or a brothel—regardless, she has failed to maintain the behavioral expectations of London society.

Mrs. Muir’s determined look and polite refusal to heed their words demonstrate at the outset her determination to move far away from such mores of decorum and decency, which have made her feel trapped in a restrictive existence. In replying that she does not understand what her decision has to do with the memory of her husband, Mrs. Muir is really confessing that she finds such social mores and gendered social expectations arbitrary and senseless, rules whose main function seems to be more to limit freedom than to promote a civil society. The isolated cottage overlooking the sea to which she wants to move turns out to be haunted by none other than Captain Daniel Gregg, its former owner. If the house by the sea represents Mrs. Muir’s efforts to leave behind the contraints of Victorian-era morality, then meeting Gregg once she moves in demonstrates the success of her endeavor.

Other incidents besides this opening scene reinforce Victorian-era Britain’s emphasis on politesse and courtesy at the expense of engaging sincerely with one’s passions and desires and living an honest, emotional life. For example, the realtor in charge of the haunted house tries to make advances on Mrs. Muir, who is still young and pretty. However, rather than attempting anything sweet or otherwise endearing, he awkwardly tries to fit the topic into casual conversation: he mentions how happy he is that she has come to enjoy staying in the house, but how he has often thought about how she needs to find the “right kind of man” to live with her and ensure that no harm comes her way. As he says this, he looks pointedly at her, his implication obvious. This kind of veiled, euphemistic discourse is perhaps meant to avoid bringing the ugliness of raw human sexual interest into polite society, but it is undoubtedly an emotionally flat method of expressing romantic interest. Luckily, at the moment the realtor utters these words, mischievious and jealous Captain Gregg makes his motor car start up of its own accord and start driving backwards down the winding road to the town of Whitecliff, forcing the realtor to end his conversation with Mrs. Muir and scamper after his car. As he does frequently throughout the film, Captain Gregg here has shown no respect for societal expectations of courtesy and civility, rudely disrupting the realtor’s conversation by distracting him with his runaway vehicle. Not only has he exhibited the opposite of Victorian-era social decency, he has literally rescued Mrs. Muir from yet another emotionally dry, indirect conversation of veiled meanings and subtle implications.

Another major example of the over-emphasis on courtesy and civility at the expense of “living life to the fullest” emotionally occurs toward the end of the film, when Mrs. Muir has a brief affair with an actual living, flesh-and-blood man named Miles Fairley who claims to be a children’s book author. Unlike the realtor, Mr. Fairley is bold and direct in his courtship with Mrs. Muir. He approaches her after spotting her in a publishing office and calls a cab for her in the rain, but then surprises her by jumping into the cab with her. He proudly admits immediately afterwards that his behavior is “brass.” The language he uses with her drips with double-entendres, and while his behavior remains gentlemanly, his intentions toward her are clear. In particular, when he inquires after her husband only to learn that he has died, Mr. Fairley responds “Oh…oh?” The first “oh” sounds somewhat dismissive and conclusive, as though he has nothing else to say in response. The second “oh,” however, uttered seconds later as he shifts his upper body toward her in the cab with renewed interest, sounds questioning, as though he has spotted an opportunity.

Throughout the conversation in the cab ride, he repeatedly moves himself closer to her than is socially acceptable for an unmarried man and woman. In one particular close-up shot of Mrs. Muir’s face, Mr. Fairley’s creeps into the frame from the side and lingers there as he flirts with her. The angle of the faces in the shot reinforces Mr. Fairley’s invasiveness of her personal space. He accompanies her to see her off on her train back home from London, but runs after the train as it starts to depart and snatches her handkerchief from her hands before she has a chance to react, yet another indication of his brashness. He does not stop there, but tracks down her address and eventually surprises her there. After a brief flirtatious exchange, he kisses her without ado. All of these actions suggest that Mr. Fairley, like Daniel Gregg, lives his life passionately and fully, without regard for the rigid social conventions surrounding courtship. Despite feigning annoyance with his forwardness, perhaps an act of flirtation in itself, Mrs. Muir clearly returns Mr. Fairley’s interest. As evidenced in her relationship with the Captain, she has a propensity to be drawn to men who scoff at the social conventions she finds stifling. The two subsequently engage in a passionate affair, which obviously causes distance between her and Captain Gregg.

Eventually, however, Mr. Fairley disappoints Mrs. Muir. She tries to surprise him at his home one day, but instead is received by his wife, who informs her that he is out taking their two children to the park. Unable to control herself, Mrs. Muir expresses enough shock for Mr. Fairley’s wife to understand what has happened, prompting her to let Mrs. Muir know that he has had affairs with other women before. Mrs. Muir thus learns the hard way that Mr. Fairley is in fact a man who leads a proper and decent family life according to Victorian-era social codes. He might still permit himself to fully experience his passions and emotions and to embrace life, but he does not “embrace life to the fullest” in the sense that Mrs. Muir longs for because he is not honest. He keeps his emotional, passionate life concealed while ostensibly playing the part of a lifeless, civil family man in the middle class in turn-of-the-century London, a role not in fact all that different from that of the blundering realtor. Mr. Fairley’s hypocrisy demonstrates the largest problem with the London society of manners portrayed in the film, which is that it is superficial and insincere. People do not interact with each other as they would really like to because of their sense of a need to preserve some kind of decorum and civility. Even Mr. Fairley, who does allow himself to acquiesce to his passions, does not fully participate in this emotionally intense life because he keeps it hidden and compartmentalized, separate from his “real” life as a middle-class family man. All of the above examples demonstrate that turn-of-the-century London as portrayed in the film is a society that stresses the importance of courtesy and the maintenance of various social mores in constructing a civil, morally acceptable society. In order to live a modern, urban London life, then, individuals must obey these social codes of interaction. The pitfall of this way of conceptualizing modernity is that interactions between individuals are dry and lifeless, and people have no means to give life to whatever emotions and passions burn within them. If they want to find an outlet for such passion, they must either leave the world of the socially-acceptable and genteel middle class or lead insincere lives, hiding their relationships from one another as Mr. Fairley does.

Captain Gregg provides Mrs. Muir with her only true respite from such a rigid and constrictive society. As has been mentioned previously, the Captain is rogueish in attitude and blunt in his language, the quintessential seaman. When he first appears to Mrs. Muir, he speaks so roughly with her that for the first time in the film, she drops her polite, courteous demeanor and shouts at him about how sick she is of how everybody is treating her. This is the first of many incidents throughout the film in which Mrs. Muir drops her socially acceptable demeanor and behaves honestly, as her true self, in front of the Captain. In other words, Captain Gregg’s frank, forthright, and gruff character seems to inspire similar comportment in those to whom he speaks. He engages in none of the pleasantries and superficially courteous conversation that dominates most conversations between other characters in the film, but uses rough and honest language to express exactly what is on his mind. For instance, when Mrs. Muir pleads with him not to influence her daughter with his dirty language and immoral ways, he responds, “As for me morals, I lived a man’s life and I’m not ashamed of it.” He frankly admits to her without shame that he has led what by the standards of many members of society is an immoral life. Captain Gregg is proud of having lived his life to the fullest, however, and not afraid to be honest with others about his lifestyle. At one point later in the film while talking with him, Mrs. Muir comments wistfully that the sea is honest. Her comment reinforces that life at sea, as represented by the captain, is sincere, without all of the hidden lives and veiled implications that result from a society obsessed with appearing polite and couth in the public sphere.

In addition to being honest and sincere in his approach to life, as Mr. Fairley certainly is not, Captain Gregg clearly has lived his life to the fullest, at every moment enthralled by the vigor and excitement of being out at sea, traveling, and constantly meeting new people. His vigor and candor draw Mrs. Muir to him, and the two soon become very close. They engage in a kind of platonic romantic relationship, since they are physically unable to interact. When Mrs. Muir is in danger of being evicted from her home in Whitecliff and needs to find a means of income quickly, however, it becomes clear that she is not the only member of modern British society in the film who desires to vicariously experience the red-blooded tales of the sailor. Captain Gregg is invested in the house remaining in Mrs. Muir’s hands, not only because he is attracted to her, but because she has promised to eventually make it a home for retired sailors, as he has always dreamed it would become. He decides to have her transcribe his autobiography and sell it to a publisher in London as a means of income, assuming that his rollicking tales will become instantly popular and earn her enough money to buy the house outright. When he announces his plans for Mrs. Muir to write the story of his life, Captain Gregg decides that the book will be called “Blood and Swash,” despite Mrs. Muir’s weak protest that the title is not “nice.” He responds that the book is not intended to be nice, but rather sensational. He wants to shock polite society with the book’s tough language and sundry yet colorful tales of life as a sea captain.

When Mrs. Muir takes the finished manuscript to the publisher, he is initially unwilling to take her seriously because he assumes that as a woman she has written some kind of feminine, uninteresting garbage, yet another cookbook or life of Lord Byron. However, when he hears that the book is actually about the unvarnished life of a sailor, he looks at her with renewed interest. “Unvarnished, you say?” he repeats as he takes the manuscript from her. His focus on the word “unvarnished” indicates that what especially draws him to the book is the promise of a tale completely raw and honest, untainted by social mores and polite, euphemistic language.  He raises his eyebrows in shock and chortles raucously as he reads the first few pages of the manuscript, suggesting that the stories within would without doubt make members of polite society blush crimson.

Four hours later, after the publisher has read the entire manuscript in one sitting, he is impassioned by the text. His eyes sparkling and a smile on his face, he asks Mrs. Muir about the original author of the book, though she is understandably reluctant to give him too much information about Captain Gregg. Leaping out of his chair and pacing his office in excitement, the publisher exclaims, “Bless my soul, what a yarn. What a life! I’ll tell you [Mrs. Muir] a secret: if I hadn’t had a mother and two sisters to support, I’d’a’gone to sea myself. Bless my soul, to live like that, instead of sitting there turning out indigestible reading matter for a bilious public!” The publisher’s eager tone of voice and repeated use of the phrase “bless my soul,” as well as his exclamation “What a life!,” indicate that he finds the sea captain’s life story invigorating in comparison to his own dull existence. He has used the book to live vicariously through the sea captain, experiencing a life lived to its emotional fullest, without the strictures and constraints of polite Victorian society. His description of his own life, publishing terrible texts for a destestable public audience, highlights the hypocrisy of a modern society in which everybody is playing a role that they hate for the sake of maintaining a particular social order.

The publisher reinforces that this problem of hiding and constricting the honest emotional life is a modern one when he says to Mrs. Muir, “…be happy that you know such a man! There aren’t many like him these days! You appreciate that?” The advent of a form of modernity that defines itself as such by maintaining a form of “polite society” in which true emotion and passion must be hidden from the public sphere has led to the disappearance of individuals like Captain Gregg who truly experience their lives to the fullest emotionally. Additionally, those who express doubt that Mrs. Muir’s house is haunted make comments about how silly it is to believe in ghosts in the twentieth century, further distancing Captain Gregg from the film’s concept of modernity. Yet, Captain Gregg represents an imagined nostalgia not for a pre-modern time, but rather for a different world altogether—the realm of the sea, which is so far beyond the grasp of human civilizaton that Victorian-era British society has not been able to extend its grip there. The sea remains beyond the realm of human society, a space where anything is still possible, where men are able to experience their lives to the fullest without fear of repurcussion. The publisher clearly finds such a life inaccessible except indirectly, through the tales of Captain Gregg. In fact, Captain Gregg is present in some form during all of the moments of the film where characters are honest and true to their emotions and passions. He embodies Victorian-era British society’s yearning for the honest, passionate lives that it perceives it has lost in the process of becoming modern.

The Grandeur of Love in Decades Past Versus the Bustle of Contemporary Life in Rouge

The vision of modernity portrayed in Stanley Kwan’s 1988 Rouge differs significantly from that within Mankiewicz’s film. 1988 Hong Kong is a city filled with incredibly busy people who are always on the move from one task or obligation to another, and therefore have no time to deeply connect with others around them. Like the characters in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, they live their lives largely without heeding the needs of their emotional selves and without being truly present and aware of every moment they experience. The difference lies in the cause of this negligence of the emotional, passionate self. Rather than focusing on the constraints of modern polite society, the form of modernity that characterizes Hong Kong defines itself by the self-absorbed nature of its inhabitants, each individual totally preoccupied by the pursuit of her own individualistic career goals.

The film uses many stylistic techniques to associate 1930s Hong Kong with drama, emotion, and passion, in comparison to the colorless, flavorless lives of the city’s inhabitants in 1980s Hong Kong. The room interiors and costumery of the scenes that take place in the older time period pop with color, whereas 1980s Hong Kong is drab and dull, in line with its emphasis on professionality. Many of the colors and settings of modern Hong Kong are dark and shot at night. Even where there is color in contemporary Hong Kong, as in Chor’s pink sweater and the interior of her and Yuen’s apartment, the colors are pale, faded, or neutral, not at all the bright and dramatic reds, blues, and so on of the scenes that take place in 1930s Hong Kong. At one point, Fleur walks around contemporary Hong Kong and shows Yuen what all of the buildings used to be back when she was alive. She grows very emotional seeing how Hong Kong has changed. This emotional reaction conveys the film’s nostalgia for an earlier, more colorful time period in the face of modernity.

Fleur herself cuts an imposing figure. Her dress is a rich black decorated with deep red flowers. She wears intense red lipstick and tightly-curled short black hair that both contrast sharply with her pale, ghostlike skin, emphasizing her dramatic look. Her mannerisms are melancholy and reserved, but it is clear to Chor and Yuen from her return to the world of the living determined to find Twelfth Young Master that underlying her melancholy is a surging rush of intense passion. In fact, her melancholy only serves to reinforce the toll that her unrequited love for her lost lover is taking on her. All of these elements combine to depict a 1930s Hong Kong in which it is possible for emotional connections to others to be experienced more vividly, more deeply. Fleur lives in the moment with Twelfth Young Master, allowing herself in his presence to be herself completely and fully experience every passionate moment of their romance. The dramatic figure her ghostly self cuts in faded, preoccupied 1980s Hong Kong reinforces the intensity of life lived to the fullest in 1930s Hong Kong.

There are many instances in the film that demonstrate the busy, preoccupied lives of the inhabitants of modern Hong Kong. For instance, the first time that couple Yuen and Chor appear in the film, they are in Yuen’s professional workplace. Chor, seemingly in a rush to get to some professional obligation, is on her way out when Yuen murmurs to her that he wants to give her something. At first, she shouts back at him to give it to her tomorrow, but then reconsiders and lets him give her his gift, the pair of new work shoes he has bought her to replace her worn-out ones. This quiet but caring act demonstrates Yuen’s consideration and affection for Chor. However, she seems not to appreciate the gesture, asking him accusingly why he had not asked her what her favorite color was before buying the shoes. She quickly switches her old shoes for the new ones and rushes past Yuen, only stopping briefly to say ‘thank you’ before hurrying off. Because she is so focused on the task ahead of her, Chor does not stop to truly appreciate Yuen’s gesture of affection. Her focus on her professional life and personal career goals causes her to overlook a moment in which she could have potentially deepened her connection with her boyfriend. Yuen does not seem to mind her behavior, which indicates how socially acceptable Chor’s preoccupation with her busy life is. The scene taking place in a professional setting also highlights that the two characters are so busy that they must find time within their work lives to engage in personal moments—they have little time to reserve exclusively for their private lives.

Later on, after Yuen has met Fleur and invited her into his house, Chor calls him from work to let him know that she will be even later than expected. This incident further reveals how she prioritizes her career over deepening her relationship with her boyfriend. After Fleur realizes that Yuen has a girlfriend, he asks how long he has known her and why he has not yet married her. Yuen responds with a smile that they have known each other for four years, and that he feels no pressure to marry her. He then asks Fleur how long she had known Twelfth Young Master, the former lover for whom she has come back to the world of the living to search. She responds that they knew each other for six months. The contrast between the two relationships is striking. Fleur and Twelfth Young Master only courted for six months, yet in that time they developed a deep, intimate relationship so strong that they preferred to make a suicide pact together than to separate because of social pressures. Chor and Yuen have dated more than four times as long as Fleur and Twelfth Young Master, and yet feel no pressure to symbolically deepen their connection in any way. The pressures of the modern world have caused Yuen and Chor to prioritize their professional lives over ther relationship. The intensity and passion of Fleur’s and Twelfth Young Master’s connection by comparison emphasizes the possibility of forming deep, passionate connections in 1930s Hong Kong.

Indeed, especially in comparison with Yuen and Chor’s underwhelming relationship, Fleur’s

love affair with Twelfth Young Master is passionate and intense. In 1930s Hong Kong, without the pressures of contemporary urban life to distract them, they fully experience each moment that they are together, continually deepening their emotional connection. From the moment that they first meet in the first scene of the film, it is clear that they feel chemistry for each other. The camera circles around them as they gaze soulfully at one another while Fleur sings her singsong routine. She playfully dismisses his attempt to continue the romantic overtone of the moment by singing a verse in response to her own; regardless, he is clearly moved by her performance. After this initial meeting, it does not take long for the two to become close. Multiple shots of their relationship focus on them lounging next to one another on the bed he has bought for her to symbolize his devotion to her, sharing in the kinds of private moments typical to lovers. Fleur also begins to refuse to do anything with any of her customers on that bed; it is as though she has designated the bed as the space separate from her professional life in which she can be herself, living in the moment and fully experiencing every moment of her true love for Twelfth Young Master. When Twelfth Young Master’s wealthy family refuses to condone marriage between the two, they agree to a suicide pact in order to remain together, an act of devotion unthinkable in contemporary Hong Kong. Upon hearing this part of the story, Chor and Yuen admit to each other that they would never die for one another. Living in an era that values the pursuit of individualistic professional goals over focusing on deepening emotional relationships, Chor and Yuen have a difficult time imagining feeling such devotion for another person.

In fact, Chor actually grows upset when she hears that Fleur, not fully trusting Twelfth Young Master, poisoned his drink to make sure that he would really go through with the suicide pact. From her modern, unemotional perspective, she perceives Fleur’s actions as murder. It is hard for her to understandthe action as a reflection of a love so deep that Fleur cannot bear the thought of being separated from Twelfth Young Master, even in death. Eventually, Fleur’s obvious adoration of her lover helps Chor to realize that her poisoning his drink was in every way an act of love, not hatred. In an era devoted to the pursuit of material wealth, it is difficult to relate to such single-minded devotion to one individual.

At the very end of the film, Fleur finally finds her lost lover, but he is not the man she remembers. He has squandered all of his money and squats on film sets along with other unfortunate nobodies. His hard life has made him look grizzled and old. Heartbroken that he intentionally never followed her to the grave and disappointed at what he has become, but stoic as always, Fleur quietly returns to him the trinket she has kept over the centuries as a token of their love and disappears back into the afterlife as he calls after her, pleading and begging for forgiveness. Chor and Yuen watch this encounter in total awe. They are noticeably stunned by what they have witnessed, clinging to each other for comfort as they walk away. Despite Fleur’s failure to reunited with her lover from 1930s Hong Kong, Chor and Yuen nevertheless have been confronted with the full emotional power of her and Twelfth Young Master’s relationship, as well as the impossibility of themselves ever experiencing such an intense relationship, through witnessing the encounter. Of course, they have witnessed in her facial expressions the pain of seeing how much Twelfth Young Master has changed. In seeing modern-day grizzled Twelfth Young Master next to the beautiful Fleur, they are also reminded that Fleur’s love is so deep that she has crossed even the boundaries of time to find her lost lover. The intensity of a love so deep that it leads her to come back from the afterworld stands in stark contrast to Yuen and Chor’s relationship-of-sorts, which has become background noise for them in the face of their careers.  Twelfth Young Master’s irreversible aging in the face of Fleur’s beauty, preserved forever, underscores the impossibility of ever truly returning to the past. Her failed encounter reiterates the film’s overall imagined nostalgia for a past era that can never be retrieved or reexperienced in the modern world. Yuen and Chor come glimpse what it is like to love so deeply through their encounter with Fleur, which at the end of the film has left them awestruck and speechless.

The dramatic flair of Fleur’s characterization emphasizes the intensity of emotional life in 1930s Hong Kong. Fleur’s complete focus on her relationship with Twelfth Young Master and subsequent deep connection to him is completely out-of-place in modern Hong Kong, a city in the midst of identity crisis because of its imminent return to China after many years of colonization by the British. In an effort to join the ranks of other so-called modern, globalized states, Hong Kong as portrayed in this film defines modernity through the pursuit and acquisition of material wealth. This consequently leads Yuen and Chor to devote themselves almost whole-heartedly to their careers at the expense of deepening their relationship to one another. Through their encounter with Fleur, they vicariously experience what it is like to feel so deeply for someone and recognize that it is impossible in the modern world to ever return to such a way of connecting to another person. Fleur’s own nostalgia for her lost world reinforces the film’s imagined nostalgia for an era in which deep interpersonal relationships are still possible.

A Note on the Gender of the Two Ghosts

Before concluding my argument, I want to explore briefly the significance of the different genders of the two ghosts. I contend that their respective genders reinforce the kinds of imagined nostalgia they are intended to evoke. Captain Gregg’s maleness is a huge factor in allowing him the freedom to live as independently as he did. As a man, his refusal to succumb to the stifling rules of Victorian-era society and lead an independent lifestyle is admired by the publisher, who says directly to Mrs. Muir when he first reads Gregg’s manuscript that he knows it’s “a man’s book.” Given the social mores and gender assumptions not only of the world depicted in the film but also of the era in which it was produced, a woman could not have held a similar role and been venerated. Indeed, the only means to evade having to uphold social conventions of deceny as a woman in this era was to become a prostitute, a role which never would have been admired and esteemed by modern audiences in the same way that Captain Gregg’s is. His male-ness is thus essential to his ruggedness and unwillfulness becoming a merit in the film.

On the contrary, Fleur’s dramatic characterization is reinforced by her femaleness. As a courtesan, she is well-practiced in the art of acting and moving in an artful manner to convey a certain image of herself. Every movement and facial expression that makes her appear dramatic, elegant, and refined to Yuen and Chor is highly femininized because of her particular training. It is possible that her female-ness also serves to emphasize the deeply reserved yet emotional nature of her particular embodied nostalgia, given fairly commonplace gender stereotypes of women as the carriers of deep-set passion. The genders of both ghosts strengthen the particular forms of imagined nostalgia for a passionate past that each one embodies.


In both The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Rouge, modernity is portrayed as an arena in which it is impossible to live life to the fullest. However, the reasons for this impossibility differ based on the particular form of modernity commented on in the film. In Victorian-era Britian, the rigid strictures and limits of social rules and conventions make it nearly impossible to indulge the emotional life, to at every instant live in the moment while experiencing true and sincere passions. In 1980s Hong Kong, the globalized world’s focus on the pursuit of wealth means that Hong Kong defines modernity through material gain. The consequence is that, in the pursuit of this wealth, individuals fail to indulge their emotional lives by constantly overlooking their interpersonal relationships. Though both films express a yearning in modernity for a renewed interest in living a life in every moment true to the individual’s passions and emotions, the way in which this imagined nostalgia is embodied alters depending on these two differing shapes of modernity. Because of Victorian England’s stress on hiding sincere emotions and passions for the sake of social decency, imagined nostalgia for a world where individuals can live passionate lives and give free reign to their emotions takes the form of a rugged sailor who has no concern for social convention and lives every moment of his life sincerely, experiencing his passions and desires to the fullest without shame. In 1980s Hong Kong, where interpersonal relationships have been completely overshadowed by the significance that the pursuit of individual wealth and accomplishment takes on, Fleur embodies the grandeur of old-time Hong Kong, a glorified past era without the pressures of modern urban life, in which individuals can give free reign to their emotional attachments to others and deepen their interpersonal relationships.

Taken together, these two ghosts demonstrate that imagined nostalgia for the same basic kind of lifestyle seen to be lacking in the modern world nevertheless emphasizes different elements and takes different forms depending on the specific historical, social, and cultural features of the modernity in which that imagined nostalgia is produced. This complicates the idea of nostalgia itself. It is commonly accepted that the definition of modernity changes depending on cultural and historical influences. Comparison of these two films demonstrates that nostalgia is also not a consistent, monolithic concept across all specifics of culture and history, that in fact the form it takes is entirely dependent on the nature of the particular modern world from which it arises.









Works Cited

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. 1947. Los Angeles, CA:
Twentieth Century Fox, 1975), DVD.

Pater, Walter. “Conclusion.” The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. In The Victorian Web.

            Last modified October 25, 2001.


Rouge. Directed by Stanley Kwan. 1988. Hong Kong, China: Mega Star Video Distribution (HK)
LTD., 1998), DVD.



[1] Pater, Walter, “Conclusion.” The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, The Victorian Web, last modified October 25, 2001 [http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/pater/renaissance/conclusion.html]