Center Stage (1991, Stanley Kwan)

Kwan has made 15 movies in the last 25 years, only three of which I’ve heard of, nominated for whole piles of awards. Shot by Hang-Sang Poon (Kung Fu Hustle, Zu Warriors) and produced by none other than Jackie Chan.

I’ve had access to a high-quality director’s-cut DVD of this, a movie on Rosenbaum’s top-100 list, for some time now. Never got around to watching it because the idea of a 2.5-hour bio-pic on a Chinese silent film actress I’ve never heard of wasn’t too appealing, however highly recommended the film. But I finally, reluctantly watched it, and of course found it brilliant and beautiful.

True, it’s a bio-pic about Ruan Ling-yu, played by Maggie Cheung (between Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time) and filmed in sensuous color. And it’s probably as full of invented details and dialogue as most bio-pics, but it also seems to take an approach of serious study interwoven with the fiction, for instance showing clips from Ruan’s actual films when available, recreating scenes with Maggie from the Ruan films that are now lost, and always distinguishing between the real and fictional film clips with subtitles. Sometimes it backs up from the fiction completely, interviewing Maggie and the other actors as themselves, commenting on the characters and the story, and sometimes the making of this film itself. Somehow this distance doesn’t detract from the drama of the story, but adds to it in a creative and informative way that makes me wonder why all bio-pics don’t use this approach.

My favorite sequence:
color: Maggie and Tony in character shooting a scene in New Woman
b/w: the film crew surrounding Maggie and Tony, now as themselves
b/w: that scene of the actual film New Woman
color: Maggie/Tony in character watching the scene

It would’ve helped if I’d known more Chinese film history, or history in general (the Japanese are bombing Shanghai?), but otherwise I enjoyed it an awful lot. Maggie Cheung always seems smarter and more aware than other actors (not others in this movie, but actors in general). This movie uses some of the same songs as her Wong Kar-Wai movies, making it feel like Maggie is in some kind of 1930’s color-cinema time-loop.

Maggie/Ruan is friends with actress Lily Li (Carina Lau, Mimi/Lulu in 2046), and married to Ta-Min (Lawrence Ng of New Dragon Gate Inn), but falls in love with Chu-Sheng (Tony 2 of Ashes of Time/Eagle Shooting Heroes), which leads to scandal and suicide. Her funeral is staged with the actors recreating poses from still photos taken at Ruan’s funeral sixty years earlier.