In his well-known essay on rail travel, Michel de Certeau compares travel to “'traveling incarceration,” the condition of being “immobile inside the train, seeing immobile things slip by.” It is a very similar sense of incarceration or entrapment which the Hong Kong journalist Yuen Yongding (Alex Man) feels, in Stanley Kwan’s 关锦鹏 1988 film Rouge 胭脂扣, as he gradually realizes that the mysterious woman who has been following him and now is nostalgically recalling her trips to the now-defunct theatre, is in actuality a ghost. Terrified, Yuen rushes to a window at the back of the bus and starts shaking it violently, as if the bus actually were his prison.
In fact, the two of them had been just sitting by the window, “seeing immobile things go by.” Simultaneously “immobile” and extraordinarily “slip[pery],” these “things” which they were observing were historical sites which Fleur (Anita Mui), the ghostly courtesan, remembered from her youthful days. The old brothel, she notes with wry amusement, has been converted into a kindergarten. The old Tai-ping theatre, meanwhile, has been replaced with a 7-11, and it is precisely Fleur’s baroque descriptions of visiting the theatre every weekend with her fellow courtesans.
As Fleur narrates these vivid memories—and as the camera itself is momentarily drawn into that nostalgic space as well—Yuen becomes increasingly anxious and distressed, ultimately standing up and asking her in horror, “What are you? You’re not human.” She is, in fact, a trace of the city itself, a splinter of nostalgic investment which had succeeded in inserting itself under his skin, invading the prison-like sanctity of the public tram.