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Maggie Cheung circumvents time and space in Center Stage — Stanley Kwan’s biopic of Ruan Lingyu, the “Greta Garbo of China” from 1930s Shanghai — making a case for the importance of the concept of belatedness to a deeper understanding of history. Kwan places Cheung in a position to explore the ramifications of an audience’s perceptions on an actress’ life and how this interrogation of both the entertainment industry and the act of acting is extended into the domain of the real—into the putrid thick of life—before being yanked back into the realm of the imaginary.
Summarily condensed into a story about the story of an actress’ life, Center Stage shares emotional resonance with the wave of biopics that have come out in recent years. It is, revelatory for the time of its release, a metapicture, if you will, that self-consciously refers back to itself as the actors make a movie about themselves; a movie about making a movie, as, some may argue, is every movie. Dissimilar to the recent adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story Drive My Car and its highbrow Ibsen theater frame story, however, the metafictional scaffold of the Hong Kong New Wave gem takes acting beyond the act of acting right down to the process of recording experience itself and commemorating a life lost. Lush with moody cinematography and replete with commentary on the process of constructing a filmic production, this movie certainly qualifies as a filmmaker’s movie.
Ruan’s meteoric rise to stardom is shadowed by her collaboration with Tony Ka Fai Leung (not to be confused with Tony Chiuwai Leung, who collaborated with Cheung in In the Mood for Love) as Tsai Chusheng, a progressive pre-Communist director who was severely persecuted for his political films. Tsai casts Ruan in a role that represents a significant loss he experienced: Ai Hsia, who was driven to suicide by an industry in which celebrity and rumormongering go hand in hand. His desire to get even with the reporters who pushed Ai to the brink puts Ruan between a rock and a hard place, as she is trained as a method actor and was previously cast in tearful, tragic roles that draw directly upon her past trauma. Her previous director had required her to relive the experience of her father’s passing in a scene that was a replica of his death when she was six. She becomes typecast as a tragic, serious heroine, shown crying in the snow, crying in the rain, crying as a nun in a convent, and soon this carries over into her offstage life as well, as her affair with a businessman and her ongoing support for a needy ex-lover leave her vulnerable to scandal. Terrorized by malignant rumors and speculation by the public, her career is one that is dogged by her inability to get a handle on the gossip that plagues her private life.
Ruan is a study of the distortions that occur in one’s reality when audience perception and lived experience do not align. She plays a modern woman — a feminist and a revolutionary, as she describes herself at a party with her group of filmmaking compatriots, kissing all the men on the cheek and making a sentimental speech, first in Mandarin, then in Shanghainese, in a nod to the deftness and skill required of actors to play their parts. Even so, she remarks to her lover as he pulls her close in a waltz, “They’re all looking at us.”
“I’ve learned one thing since coming to society,” he reassures her, indirectly informing us of her entrance onto the public sphere.
“If you’re rich and powerful, none dare say anything bad about you in your presence.” “And when not in your presence?” she asks, coyly.
“Then you can’t hear it,” he says, as they laugh together, their world spinning ‘round in a temporary refuge.
As Tsai directs his screenplay for New Woman, however, its open indictment of the press causes critics to walk out and the film to receive negative reviews. He is forced to censor significant portions of the film in order to prevent it from being banned. The ensuing drama — “You’ve made it too loose,” Ruan rebukes him, always gently — leads to legal trouble for her, as she and her partner are sued, and she faces scandal and sexualization, stalked left and right by reporters hungry for the next scoop about the cheongsam-clothed starlet and her beloved. The core of the film is the dread that builds up to a central absence, a center that cannot hold, and this sobering element to its tragic story is relayed to viewers again at the end of the film: the studio that is featured within the narrative existed, as evidenced in historical footage; an actress, a life, had existed as well until cut short at the age of 24.
For filmgoers as well as those within the industry (or those attempting to break out), here we must pause to weigh the impact of Kwan’s skillful balance of gravitas and levity, which is crucial to developing a strain of harmonic tension within the filmic atmosphere: light, dark, major and minor, stability and madness — this duality of contrasts serves to shore up a cultural motif as well as a refined delicacy to the actors’ performances of performance. In the foreground of the film is the viewer’s knowledge that the spectre of death hangs over the entire filming process, leaving a looming sense of unease and dismay until the much-needed catharsis at the film’s resolution: a monumental breathing-out, a collective sigh of relief after not knowing what to expect out of the seemingly abbreviated futurity represented.
What does this picture want of us, besides admiration for the evocative period costuming, romantic ambiguities and entanglements, and kisses on the cheek, always kisses? Kwan’s film celebrates Ruan Lingyu’s trailblazing life in the center stage, meanwhile picturing depiction through fragmented editing that draws attention to medium specificity in order to offer critical social commentary, seeking justice for those castigated by the popular media. Cheung would go on to win Best Actress at the Golden Horse Awards and Berlin Festival for her performance, and Poon Hang Sang was awarded best cinematography for his sensitive camerawork as well. A pushback against mainstream commercial cinema, Center Stage makes us face our own experiences as filmgoers in an industry where precious lives are on open display or tabloid fodder, asking of us where the beauty is beneath all of the empty talk and how to preserve it for as long as we can carry on.