CENTER STAGE (Yuen Ling-yuk) A
aka: ACTRESS (Ruan Lingyu) d: Stanley Kwan
Hong Kong (126 mi) 1992 extended version: (154 mi) edited version: (118 mi)
Uniquely original follow-up to Kwan’s sumptuously beautiful ghost story Rouge (Yan zhi kou) (1988), though the ghost in this story is legendary Silent era film star Ruan Lingyu, a huge star of Shanghai cinema, still appearing in silent films as late as 1935, often compared to Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish for her suffering heroines, yet her life took a tragic turn, taking her own life at the peak of her acclaim on International Woman’s Day at the age of 24. Kwan’s film intermixes vintage photos and film clips with a modern era retelling of her story, using Kwan himself front and center in front of a cinema vérité style camera discussing her life with his film crew, openly commenting offering contemporary views of the people they are portraying, starring the illustrious Maggie Cheung as an actress in the role of Ruan Lingyu, performing in Cantonese, Mandarin, and Shanghainese fluently, switching languages with ease. Using black and white stills of the silent era actress to open the film, Kwan then reimagines the behind-the-scenes production of many of Ruan’s major films, juxtaposing these reconstructed scenes shot in color with corresponding black and white clips from the original films, creating a mirror effect with a dual reality transitioning from the past to present. Curiously, Kwan includes films that have been lost, so his film crew, led by cinematographer Poon Hang-sang, are reconstructing scenes that no longer exist. Openly staging what we see in front of cameras and microphones gives the film a documentary feel, paying particular attention to historic detail in the fictionalized recreation, with Kwan speaking to colleagues or people in the industry to recount what they remember about the screen legend. In this unique way, a story is told not only about a legendary film star, famous for her roles in tales of harassed and martyred women (mirroring her own life), yet molding herself in the spirit of revolution and resistance against foreign powers, while facing the uncertainty of romantic love herself, adopting a daughter “for protection” during a particularly unstable relationship, struggling to assert her individuality against a stiflingly repressive patriarchal industry, finding herself trapped by hostile forces that ultimately destroy her, but it also paints a picture of cinema itself, revealing the inner workings of a close-knit movie set, emphasizing teamwork and camaraderie, showing how they discuss and collaborate before ever pointing the camera at anyone. Cheung is magnificent in the role, winning Best Actress when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1992, becoming the first Chinese actress to be recognized with a European award. Despite its success in Berlin, the film was an unmitigated disaster in Hong Kong, premiering at a Jackie Chan Foundation event with massive walk-outs, leading to major cuts by the local distributor who didn’t bother to preserve the original negative. Saved by the Sydney Film Festival, who kept a full-length print, a DVD could be made using the original full-length version (the edited version is a hack job, chopping off more than 30-minutes). The film begins in 1929, the year the Lianhua Film Company opened in Shanghai with a progressive left-wing mentality, providing inspirational social messages, with a voiceover claiming Ruan was only interested in serious roles, cutting to the present, with Kwan himself commenting on Ruan dying at the height of her glory, questioning how Maggie Cheung might feel doing the same, while asking how she’d like to be remembered. Her measured response takes into consideration acts of desperation, which is presumably how Ruan felt at the time of her death, hounded and harassed by gossip and salacious tabloid reporters delving into her private life, much of it politically motivated by nationalist Kuomintang elements to undermine the film industry’s progressive social message, perhaps manipulating reactionary public sentiment following the early 1930’s Japanese invasion of Manchuria, occupying and establishing a puppet state, actually disrupting Ruan’s work with Lianhua Studios, with Shanghai eventually falling to the Japanese just a few years after Ruan’s death, so by 1938 the Chinese film industry moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong.
Coming from a working class background, Ruan began acting at the age of 16, establishing a wide range of roles from comedic to tragic, portraying prostitutes, teachers, and revolutionary workers, where nearly all prints of her early 20’s and 30’s films are lost, so Kwan juxtaposes archival still photos with Maggie Cheung recreating the role in Sun Yu’s WAYSIDE FLOWERS (1930) where Ruan Lingyu plays a mother desperately driven by famine to feed her starving baby in the snow with blood from her own finger that she has bitten, receiving instructions from the director, doing several takes, the last one compared to another Ruan performance from THE GODDESS (1934), a later film that has survived. The film is a curious blend of history using two women born in different cities, as Ruan was born in Shanghai, while Cheung was born in British-ruled Hong Kong. Ruan’s life is viewed from the vantage point of two different men, one who remained openly jealous and emotionally naïve, never really developing a happy relationship, and another with a more mature and financially successful man that allowed their love to thrive, if only for a brief period. At the age of 16, Ruan’s mother worked as a housemaid for a wealthy Zhang family, with Ruan developing a relationship with Zhang Damin (Lawrence Ng), a chronic gambler and spendthrift who never proposed, quickly tiring of his irresponsible behavior, splitting from him in 1933. His ways were so intolerable that he was eventually thrown out of his own family in disgrace, living on a stipend from the actress herself, who falls madly in love with a rich tea merchant, Tang Jishang (Han Chin), who not only had a wife (living separately), but a history of affairs. Despite a separation agreement in civil court where Zhang demands alimony, he remains humiliated and embittered by the circumstances, filing a headlines-grabbing lawsuit against Ruan for living in adultery, attempting to extort even more money out of her while being paid handsomely by the tabloids for offering his story of living with her. Ruan was the leading actress in several left-wing films of the 30’s, including THREE MODERN WOMEN (1933), NIGHT IN THE CITY (1933), THE GODDESS (1934), and NEW WOMEN (1934), films contrasting motherhood with prostitution, with suggestions that mothers will resort to anything to help benefit their children, where malicious rumors began flying with the making of NEW WOMEN, depicting reporters as a hypocritical pack of jackals who drive a women to her suicide, where incensed reporters walk out of the screening in protest, allegedly offended by the film’s scathing depiction of the Shanghai tabloids, demanding cuts and an immediate public apology. But even after their demands are met, reporters make blatant attempts to malign the famed actress as they continue an unprecedented assault on her character, accusing her of an adulterous love affair, literally hounding her mercilessly, establishing a new moral low ground that she felt she could never recover from. Nonetheless she courageously put on a happy face for a farewell production company party the night before, ceremoniously toasting one another with good cheer while dancing the night away before, astonishingly, showing an extreme degree of care in narrating her own death. While not in the film, her funeral procession was three miles long, with three of Ruan’s fans committing copycat suicide en route, described by The New York Times in a front-page story as “the most spectacular funeral of the century.” Kwan is especially gifted in shooting ballroom dance sequences, exquisitely balancing the modern era of pulsating jazz music with period costume, meticulously recreating the intoxicating beauty of Old Shanghai of the 30’s. While rarely, if ever, listed as among the influences, Kwan’s lush visual style opens the floodgates for the sensual magnificence of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, who was also born in Shanghai (his family fleeing during the Cultural Revolution), but Wong’s use of color, exquisite musical selections, and intoxicating visual treatment opened a new door in Hong Kong cinema, focusing on mood and atmosphere over narrative, often blending together multiple storylines and interconnected stories. But anyone watching the late moments of this film can’t help but see the resemblance between Kwan and what was to become Wong Kar-wai’s overflowing, magisterial style, setting the stage for Maggie Cheung’s smoldering performance in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000).
Quiet and contemplative, accompanied by hushed musical interludes between scenes, Kwan’s look back at a golden era of cinema is like a historical refresher, offering viewers another chance to examine this period in history, where it’s particularly revealing to see the elite group of directors Ruan had to work with at the Lianhua Studio, including Sun Yu, Fei Mu, and Cai Chusheng, who directed Ruan’s final film NEW WOMAN, which was based upon the life of Chinese actress and writer, Ai Xia, who had committed suicide in 1934, whose poignant deathbed sequence where she changes her mind and wants to live is repeatedly filmed with Cheung, each time with more emotion added, finally crying uncontrollably after the final take (perhaps revealing the full extent of her powerlessness), where it’s clear film directors never hesitate to exploit their actresses, something they do constantly, mirroring the way women are treated in society. Fei Mu did the exact same thing to Ruan in an earlier scene depicting the death of her father, recalling traumatic memories associated with the actual death of the actress’s father, shooting it repeatedly to the point of emotional depletion, causing untold levels of pain, and doing it intentionally. Cutting back to the present, Kwan and actress Cheung discuss the possible reasons for the actress’s suicide, where both offer surprisingly inadequate responses, as none seem to do the actress justice, yet the reality of her dramatic presence on the screen continues to allure audiences, offering a taste of something powerfully new and different, particularly when viewed with a contemporary feminist slant, challenging artists and film historians to dig deeper, yet the artform itself perhaps provides the best answer, as real life happened to intersect with the roles she was playing, where it probably felt quite natural to respond with such melodramatic overtures, as after all, that was her specialty onscreen, and what we know of her *is* her acting, where the American title Actress makes the most sense, with much of this film paying acute attention to the artistry of her craft. One other unknown factor is Ruan’s legendary star status in silent films, working in an industry that was transforming into talking pictures, where, like Garbo, she may have been hesitant to make that move, afraid she might have been viewed differently. The director leaves this question open and ambiguous, yet clearly he was internally conflicted on the issue, much as he was personally, revealing to the world in 1996 that he was gay, becoming the first openly gay Asian director. One wonders what role this plays in this and his earlier films, where the prominence of ghosts and alternate realities plays such a significant role. While this is arguably his greatest film (and quite possibly the greatest Hong Kong film ever, according to Jonathan Rosenbaum), a narrative kaleidoscope, where no single point of view is offered as definitive, yet collectively they produce a transformative experience, as it plunges the depths of analysis while offering a bewildering cinema fantasia that is so masterfully constructed, blending together the past and the present, opening up a near forgotten era in history, where the director beautifully mixes artistry with original content in an unmatched personal style, especially for traditional biopic material, radically reworking the genre. The picture that emerges is a meticulously researched historical depiction of Ruan Lingyu, created by merging the world of Old Shanghai cinema with contemporary Hong Kong, with both actresses Ruan Lingyu and Maggie Cheung symbolizing the modernity of the city by offering portraits of a contemporary Chinese woman. Kwan explores issues of history combined with film aesthetics, personal and public identity, featuring a past/present relationship between a film star and the press, while at the same time commenting upon the harshly repressive effects of patriarchal authoritarianism, sounding the alarm on the potential connections between Hong Kong’s colonial past and its “post-colonial” future when sovereignty is handed over to Mainland China in 1997.
Carina Lau plays Li Lily, an actress and co-star on the set and one of Ruan’s best friends, mirroring Lau’s own relationship with Maggie Cheung in real life (remaining lifelong friends), working together in Wong Kar-wai’s DAYS OF BEING WILD (1990), both sharing the same boyfriend in the film (Leslie Cheung), both rumored to have the same boyfriend off set in actor Tony Leung, with Cheung working with him romantically in Wong’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000), while Lau married him in lavish fashion in 2008, with Wong directing the marital festivities. Blending together the cultural mix of Shanghai and Hong Kong, Kwan produces such a romanticized view, complete with a heartbreaking musical soundtrack, including Taiwanese pop star Tracy Huang’s stylishly elegant “Bury My Heart,” 黃鶯鶯 - 葬心 （電影《阮玲玉》主題曲）【1992】 YouTube (4:59), winning Best Original Film Song and Best Original Film Score by Johnny Chen at the Hong Kong Awards, while also winning Best Actress, Best Cinematographer, and Art Direction.