Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s A Century of Chinese Cinema which runs from June 5th to August 11th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit http://tiff.net/century and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Stanley Kwan’s 1992 film Center Stage is a brilliantly innovative biopic about Chinese silent film star Ruan Ling-yu, played by Maggie Cheung. She stared in approximately 30 films in 8 years, from 1927-1935 and was immensely popular. In 1935, at the age of 24, she committed suicide because of an ongoing tabloid scandal.
The film doesn’t start at the beginning of her career, but in the middle when she is most famous. It details her first marriage and her adoption of a daughter, the crumbling of her marriage due to her husband’s gambling and her getting involved with a rich investor who was married and had another mistress besides her. She also began a relationship with the director of some of her later films.
Stanley Kwan’s 1992 film Center Stage is a brilliantly innovative biopic about Chinese silent film star Ruan Ling-yu, played by Maggie Cheung.
The film also includes contemporary footage of the actors being asked questions about if they want to be remembered long after their careers are over or they’ve died and some things about Ruan. It also puts in interviews with Ruan’s friends and co-workers so we can get some idea of the woman outside of the narrative constraints.
The structuring is where the film is innovative. Weaving in contemporary footage of the actors weighing in on the legacy of Ruan and having people who actually knew her and worked with her speak about her gives Cheung’s performance a little more resonance than if we just watched the dramatization of Ruan’s life. It was also an interesting choice by Kwan to use the actual films of Ruan to show a scene that we watched the actors reenact. Since there are only 8 of her films that survive, the choice of starting the film when they did may have been predetermined by his want to use the real footage. It takes out the artificiality that is normally encountered in a biopic about an actor because they normally reshoot the scene so the audience isn’t confused, and the actors playing the actors acting in an established film never works properly and the original film feels watered down as a result. Kwan presumes his audience can adjust and is smart enough to figure out the differences.
The look of the film is also very striking. Kwan uses a dulled color palate to give the impression of the 1930’s and a kind of hazy feeling to the film, possibly to denote some level of nostalgia or a comment on the reliability of memory. The intercutting contemporary footage is all tinted blue, so there is no mistaking that it was shot on video and is not part of the reenactment, but kind of appendix information or footnotes if you will. He does put titles on the screen to tell you when the footage was shot, but it’s up to the audience to figure out that the people being interviewed are not actors acting, they are the real people being asked real questions.
The look of the film is also very striking. Kwan uses a dulled color palate to give the impression of the 1930’s and a kind of hazy feeling to the film, possibly to denote some level of nostalgia or a comment on the reliability of memory.
Cheung is the other bright spot of the film. She plays Ruan very confident and brash, going so far as to tell her lovers they must divorce their wives, dump their other mistresses and marry her. I’m not sure she cares which one does it either, the playboy or the director, just as long as one of them does. She is also quiet and calm, approaching nearly everything with a coolness and a logic that surely cannot be present in a woman who kills herself because of bad tabloid stories. She even approaches the suicide in a calm manner. She has a bowl of some kind of rice cereal and she dumps two bottles of pills into it and writes her suicide note while occasionally taking a few spoonfulls. Cheung’s demeanor never alters as she peruses what she wants, which seems to be a stable home life along with her prominent career.
On the down side of the film, it is very talky and easy to get a little lost. The people that come in and out of Ruan’s life aren’t really clearly defined and so some events get jumbled and the film is unclear. Many people are seen only from a distance, so it’s difficult to tell who they are and what relation they have to her. There is a scene near the end, a dinner party, where Ruan goes around the room and kisses each man in the room on both cheeks and extols their virtues and what they did for her along her career. Most of them I didn’t recognize at all. These choices, to make the film as dialogue heavy as it is and to shoot many of its scenes in long shots, hinder the emotional impact of the film and may have prevented it from being far better than it already is.
What the film does accomplish for me is a want to seek out Ruan Ling-yu’s 8 surviving films. She’s shown to be a powerful actress and apparently a very good person who made some mistakes in her personal life, but then who hasn’t? Center Stage may not be a masterpiece, but it does shed light on a figure that is beloved in China and makes an argument that she should be known everywhere else too.
[notification type=”star”]83/100 ~ GREAT. Center Stage may not be a masterpiece, but it does shed light on a figure that is beloved in China and makes an argument that she should be known everywhere else too.[/notification]