Title: Center Stage
Director: Stanley Kwan
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Han Chin, Lawrence Ng
Synopsis: A biographical reconstruction that examines the life and career of the famed Chinese actress Ruan Ling-yu. Ruan was early icon in Shanghai’s silent film industry who rose to prominence at the age of sixteen and took her own life by the time she was twenty-four due to the overwhelming pressure of a scandal-hungry press, and demanding rigors of fame.
Stanley Kwan interweaves the narrative into a free-form documentary with the cast as well as surviving friends co-stars of the silent film era to share their thoughts on the late actress.
Critique: It’s great when you discover a film that could be associated with a genre that is deathly cliched but is made with such originality any association is unthinkable. The glut of biopics these days have devolved into self-parody, but in the right hands, biopics can be illuminating portraits of iconic people, not lazily conceived nonsense. Stanley Kwan’s sensibilities make the otherwise somber reality of Ruan Ling-yu a theatrically satiating exploration on life and art without whitewashing or exploitative sensationalism. Luckily, for dramatic license and our collective sakes Stanley Kwan is a smart director.
Adapting a true story or a biography to film brings an obligatory contrast to light; does an interesting story make for a good movie? It’s the “square peg, round hole” dilemma. It seems like filmmakers are faced with two choices: sand down the edges (be faithful and risk making a boring movie) or slam the square peg in with a mallet (or take liberties for the sake of entertainment). Kwan resolves this glaring conflict by utilizing reality instead of resorting to dramatic lethargy. Center Stage is realistic but beautiful; Kwan invests his creative energies for the fiction while making room for the historical analysis during the documentary segments.
The film opens with a matter-of-fact narration over some still shots of Ruan, informing us of her early roles, career, and death, addressing the nature of stardom to Cheung whose naturalistic presence reinforces that what we are undergoing is a tentative fiction. The artifice of moviemaking is readily treated and explored by focusing a bulk of the fictional narrative concentrates on the mechanics of Shanghai’s bustling film empire. Moreover, the wheeling and dealings of her career and public profile come to screen in a very laissez-faire manner. Ruan’s ascension as a celebrity is shorn from the dramatized crescendos that populate biographical material. It becomes clear that their intentions of celebrating her contribution to art as a means of creative development in their making of the movie, the documentary interludes are a means of calibrating us to their level of understanding.
Technically, Kwan’s style could be described as affection through detachment; he and Cheung are processing the life and actions of their character as the movie evolves. The visual accentuations evoke the Technicolor era of Douglas Sirk, a warm/cold cross-examination befitting the eastern/western mythos that runs through the bulk of films from the Hong Kong New/Second Wave.
As Center Stage is a film about a star, it’s only fair to acknowledge the power of Cheung’s delicate and sensitive performance. As Ruan Ling-yu, she’s reserved, kind, and graceful. Cheung’s steadfast interpretation is a process of discovery throughout, and the film never resorts to the expected behavioral breaks and turgid orating of emotional expression. Kwan and Cheung seem to have an unspoken agreement that Ruan’s allure is best kept enigmatic. Whether it’s respect for the artist, intuitive artistic license, or a formal love letter to the medium, Center Stage comes out as a masterpiece every time.
As Kwan is a leading member of the Hong Kong Second Wave, social context is a reflex of the director, not a choice or interest or hobby.The cathartic identity crisis of Ruan Ling-yu could be a vehicle for expressing the identity crisis, or rather it’s obfuscation during a unique time in Hong Kong’s history. Keep in mind, Center Stage predates the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong to mainland China, not to mention the proximity of the Tiananmen Square Massacre shortly beforehand. The socio/political anxiety isn’t subtext; it’s an inherited function of the film movement.
Some have alleged that the very casting of Cheung was in some ways a statement. A British-born, Hong Kong resident playing the Mandarin-speaking Shanghai native Ruan Ling-yu; there’s some validity to this implication, but I’d like to think it’s because Maggie Cheung is a terrific actor.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: I think my rant on the oversight of Hong Kong/Chinese cinema in North American home video covers a lot of the same ground this time around. Admittedly, Center Stage is a bit of hard film to sell, but The Criterion Collection caters to an audience that is (obviously) keen on movies. And if history has taught us anything, is that audiences love movies about movies. The life of Ruan Ling-yu might not have as much context in North America(I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of her until seeing Center Stage), but the discovery of a fascinating film from an equally intriguing director does. Inaugurating Center Stage in The Criterion Collection would serve as an indication of forward momentum in expanding the level of Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese language cinema following the work of Edward Yang and Wong Kar-wai.