Center Stage Review

In the interests of full disclosure, I should make clear that I didn’t know anything about Ruan Ling-yu before seeing ‘Center Stage’. I knew the film was highly regarded by Asian cinema enthusiasts and represented something of a breakthrough for the 28-year old Maggie Cheung, but when I came to actually sit down and watch it, my background knowledge of Chinese silent cinema was zero.

The reason I make this point is that I honestly think ‘Center Stage’ is a film that will work best for fans of that genre. It is not a straightforward biopic. Director Stanley Kwan has taken the unusual approach of mixing lovingly recreated scenes of Ruan’s dramatic life, snippets of her films and – most daringly – ad-hoc black and white interviews with his young cast, quizzing them about their impressions of the characters they’re playing. The latter are also interspersed with snatches of interviews undertaken by Kwan with some of Ruan’s contemporaries who were still alive at the time of the film’s production as well as Ruan’s biographer.

Kwan thus presents us not so much with a portrait of Ruan, as a triptych. We see her actual performances. We see Cheung’s hypnotic, opaque interpretation of her life. And we hear the opinions of the cast members (and others) about her. It’s an ambitious, somewhat intellectual attempt to give an emotional impression of Ruan as a human being while at the same time providing some historical perspective on her status as an icon of Chinese cinema. It’s rather ironic, therefore, that what tends to get lost in the chopping and changing is a strong, direct, vital impression of what this woman was actually like.

Chinese cinema’s leading star of the 30s and widely hailed as ‘the Chinese Garbo’, Ruan Ling-yu (Cheung) was born in Shanghai in 1910. She started acting aged 16 at the powerful MingXing studio. After a string of less than stellar films she started working with the newly-founded progressive Lian Hua Studio and shot to fame in 1930 in the massive blockbuster ‘Reminiscences of Peking’. A series of movies followed in which Ruan portrayed tragic, put-upon heroines of varying class but consistently graceful spirit. Audiences responded to an unprecedented degree, making Ruan one of the biggest film stars of her time. While colossally successful professionally, Ruan was less happy in her private life, enduring two long-term relationships with abusive, unfaithful men. In 1935 she killed herself with an overdose of barbiturates. Her death made headlines around the world. A crowd of hundreds of thousands lined the streets of Shanghai to watch her funeral procession and three women reportedly committed copycat suicides.

Beginning in 1929 with the filming of her breakthrough blockbuster ‘Reminiscences of Peking’, Kwan’s film follows the ill-starred actress as she becomes a star, tires of sponging lover Chang Ta-min, flees to Hong Kong, takes up with wealthy womaniser Tang Chi-shan, separates and generally leads the life of a tormented silent movie actress. If I sound a bit jaded in my description of the plot of ‘Center Stage’, it’s for the simple reason that by the time the film moved into its second hour, I was bored! The thing is, it’s almost completely lacking in dramatic tension. One beautifully shot scene dovetails into the next, with the exquisitely tailored cast smiling politely to each other and not doing very much. The film assumes a background knowledge of Ruan’s life and the many characters that inhabited it and without this, a lot of the events take place in an emotional vacuum, since one can’t really identify who people are and what their relationship to Ruan is.

The switches to footage of Ruan’s films and Kwan’s discussions with his actors actually halt what narrative momentum the film has rather than augmenting it. I’m not against this technique in principle – it can work well, in a film such as ‘Reds’, for example, where the brief interjections of the ‘witnesses’ provided a real dramatic weight to the storyline. But in ‘Center Stage’ one already feels such a tenuous emotional connection to the story that this further distancing from the material – a layer of intellectual appraisal and historical analysis, no less – proves fatal to one’s engagement with the film as a whole. Also, despite an appearance of spontaneity, the ‘ad-hoc’ interview sections actually have a strangely rehearsed feel. The interviewees are carefully arranged within the frame so that the camera can shift focus as they answer. It also pans to take in actors as they speak in turn. Were their responses scripted? Were the ‘discussions’ arranged? They certainly have an oddly choreographed feel for what should have been a rather chaotic event.

Another problem is that Kwan seems fascinated in the world of 30s Hong Kong cinema for its own sake. This is made clear by the lingering close ups of minor characters, the glut of low-key scenes which don’t serve to substantially advance the action and the often lengthy visual asides to show aspects of the 30s Hong Kong filmmaking process that, while no doubt technically accurate, aren’t, I would suggest, as fascinating to the general viewer as they are to him. He clearly feels a strong personal connection to the time and place that Ruan lived in and probably regards himself – with a fair amount of justification – as being part of a lineage of Chinese film-making of which artists such as Sun-Yu and Fei Mu are the founding fathers. But such a personal interest in material can actually cloud a director’s critical faculties and I think that’s happened, to a degree, here.

Even Cheung’s performance as Ruan doesn’t quite ring true. Fundamentally, she does a great job, but for some reason I didn’t feel as if Ruan the person actually came to life on screen as a living being. Cheung plays Ruan as a distant, beautiful goddess, her feet not quite touching the ground, more wandering sprite than human being. She floats through her life’s various trials almost never raising her voice or changing her expression from a polite, deferential smile, an opaque presence. This may be an accurate representation of a Chinese woman of the time and it’s a mesmeric performance, but I couldn’t connect it with the DVD’s material of the real Ruan. By no means a traditional beauty, Ling-yu transfixed audiences with her impassioned performances and heartbreaking emotional honesty, expressed through those wide, brimming eyes. Judging from the footage of her 1934 film ‘The Goddess’, for instance – in which Ruan plays a sassy streetwalker – her earthy charm, vulnerability and gift for switching between comedy and tragedy sprang from a gutsy soul and a resolutely independent spirit. What we get is Ruan-as-Cheung (and Cheung – the Asian Binoche – does glacial-indifference-masking-inner-pain as well as anyone) rather than just Ruan, plain and simple. Also, I’d be remiss not to point out that Carina Lau, who plays Ruan’s feisty friend Lily, looks and ‘feels’ a lot more like Ruan than Cheung does, at least to me.

Special Features
There are two promotional trailers, two sets of photo galleries and two interviews.

The Promotional Trailers consist of the Original Movie Trailer and the New Edited Movie Trailer. The Photo Galleries consist of the Movie Stills Photo Album which does exactly what it suggests and the Movie Photo Slideshow which also does what one imagines it would accompanied by the film’s soundtrack. The two Interviews are with Stanley Kwan and Paul Foronoff.

The eleven-and-a-half-minute Stanley Kwan interview features the director describing his initial interest in the project and the research he undertook in his desire to understand the glory days of the Shanghai film industry and Ruan’s place in it. Specific areas covered include his favourite scenes, his views on Cheung and interesting stories from the film’s shoot. It’s interesting enough for the short period it lasts. The other interview is with film critic Paul Foronoff, who provides valuable background information about Ruan’s life and career. It lasts just under 13 minutes.

‘Center Stage’ is presented in 1:85:1 anamorphic widescreen and appears to be in the correct ratio. The film’s first scenes, in a steamy bathhouse, give rather a false impression of the transfer as a whole, as minor artefacting is present. Subsequent scenes reveal its true quality however. Skin tones are often breathtakingly natural and the film’s delicate colour palette is beautifully represented. There is a degree of softness to the print but not to a level that I found distracting. Dirt and other damage was minimal. A superb picture.

This is not a film that is going to shake your subwoofer, but near-top marks have to go to Fortune Star for providing no less than three soundtracks, a Cantonese DD 5.1, a Cantonese DTS (!) and the original Cantonese 2.0. Unsurprisingly I found the DTS the most powerful, dialogue clear and distinct, the film’s minimal, rather antiseptic soundtrack well represented, although there’s also something to be said for the nice, warm-sounding 2.0.

A darling of the international festival circuit, Kwan is certainly a tasteful and thoughtful filmmaker and ‘Center Stage’ is a triumph in the art direction and costume design departments. The DVD looks exquisite and satisfies on a technical level, plus non-Cantonese speakers should note the Special Features are subtitled in English. The film itself is less inspiring, being reverential to the point of hagiography and suffering from a crippling lack of tension that makes its 154 minute running time drag. In this context, Cheung’s performance, while hypnotic, becomes just another beautiful ripple crossing Kwan’s lake of indifference.

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