Centre Stage/The Actress/Yuen Ling-yuk (1992) 阮玲玉

Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese
Runtime: 167 minutes
Director: Stanley Kwan
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Chin Han

Theme: Death

Ratings: IMDb: 7.7/10

Film Festivals:
1992 Berlin International Film Festival

1992 Berlin International Film Festival: Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actress (Maggie Cheung)
1993 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Actress (Maggie Cheung) / Best Art Direction / Best Cinematography / Best Original Film Score / Best Original Film Song

1992 Berlin International Film Festival: Golden Berlin Bear (Stanley Kwan)
1993 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director (Stanley Kwan), Best Costume & Make-up Design, Best Picture, Best Screenplay

Centerstage (1994) is a biopic of the efferverscent Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935), China’s first prima donna of the silver screen. Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan pays tribute to the legendary actress, nicknamed the “Chinese Garbo” in her fleeting nine-year career, chronicling her rise to prominence up till the moment of suicide. This film is also credited to be Maggie Cheung’s breakthrough role, and the numerous Best Actress accolades she picked up, including the Silver Bear at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, is testament of that. Today, Maggie Cheung has become one of Asian cinema’s most recognizable faces, her oriental porcelain face an expression of stoic calmness in an exquisite tranquility that the seminal Ruan Lingyu once possessed. How befitting that the versatile Cheung was chosen for the role, given their similar aura of being method actresses who embrace the art form by possessing the characters they portray.

The biopic adopts a unique editing structure in how it intersperses original scenes from Ruan Lingyu’s movies (or rather, the few that remain in circulation today given how many of them were lost during the tumultuous years of World War II and the Chinese Cultural Revolution that followed her death, including The Goddess (1934) and New Women (1934)) with present day re-enactments. Maggie Cheung breathes life into Ruan Lingyu’s character in her scenes, along with character interviews where the personnel involved in the show—including Stanley Kwan himself—give their personal opinion about the tragic life of Ruan Lingyu, conveying their respect for her as well as providing insights into what might have been different should Ruan Lingyu be alive in the present era. In fact, such a cross-era comparison is significant in bringing out the tragedy of it all, that the impudence and double standards of the past could have led to the loss of such a brilliant actress whose name will remain in the Chinese cinema folklore forever. Thus, such a non-linear story allows the viewer to see Ruan Lingyu’s flaws, as well as the vulnerabilities and strengths of the dedicated actress.

What rescued Ruan Lingyu from poverty eventually proved to be the downfall of the silent film star who has portrayed a plethora of roles ranging from a war revolutionary, an independent woman and a peasant girl. Some key scenes is how Ruan Lingyu apparently refused to rest on her laurels. She was diligent in her picking up of Mandarin despite being well-versed only in Cantonese, so as to break into the mainstream China and Hong Kong market. She refused to be pigeon-holed as the frail victimized lovelorn character, but rather took the initiative to approach her director, volunteering herself for the role of a headstrong war revolutionary – and excelling at it along the way in what would eventually become a breakthrough role. She was helpful in offering guidance to fellow actresses like the loud Lily Li, when she was unable to grasp the proper emotions required in a scene.

It is beyond me to ascertain whether the scenes in the film are entirely faithful to the goings-on that happened in the past, but some scenes are emotionally affecting. The patriarchal double standard of the Chinese media in the past that unjustifiably vilified the adulterous woman, with Ruan having been involved in not one, but two, extra-marital affairs, but letting the male get away scot-free comes into question, and it is indeed a pity when cultural ethics betray the journalistic demands of the era. Ruan was perhaps an icon of the liberation of Chinese feminism, in charge of her career, in charge of the tragic heroine roles she play, and ultimately in control of her relationships. Not to imply that she was a control freak, but it must have been hard when reality snatches away threefold the things she hold dearest to her. It might have been troubling times for the Chinese movie industry given the imminent onset of the war – uncertain times that might have piled pressure on her career. The psyche of the tragic heroine roles she portray must have dealt a blow to her personal psyche, especially with the scandal enveloping her career. Further, it takes a lot for someone to even engage in extra-marital affairs despite knowing that social and cultural norms dictate that it is taboo and even immoral. She must have loved very deeply. Yet her old flame tries to extort money from her popularity, while her then-boyfriend was hardly supportive at all. With the control of her relationships gradually landing into the hands of the paparazzi that report and sensationalizes her every move, she was devastated and pushed to suicide. Yet her funeral rites as portrayed in the movie, full of glitz and glamour as all the directors crowded around her deathbed offering her last words, and the eventual procession, reportedly three miles long, is indeed befitting of the star that has lost her shine.

The following is a summary of the filmography of works that is captured by the film:

[1930] Reminiscences of Peking 故都春夢. Director: Sun Yu / Film no longer available (06:19, Part 1). A unique misè-en-scène occurs at 06:58 where Ruan’s face is backfacing the camera and turned towards the mirror, but her expression is evident through the three-fold mirror at her dressing table, while the overly white make-up is characteristic of the opera influences that Chinese cinema was once based on in its early days. Of course – the original footage will certainly not have been in color, with color film technologies not having been invented yet at that moment.

[1930] Wayside Flower 野草開花. Director: Sun Yu / Film no longer available (02:29, Part 2). We see the frail Ruan, in character, walking in the snow when she falls down and removes her coat. The camera slowly tracks to a close-up by 03:13 as she caresses her arms as if holding onto her baby. She lies down again and bites her finger to feed baby blood.

[1931] Weeping Peach Blossoms 桃花泣血記. Director: Pu Wan-Chang / Film available. (07:36, Part 3).

[1932] Three Modern Women 三個摩登女人. Director: Pu Wan-Chang / Film no longer available (02:30, Part 6), and it is apparent that this scene was shot in a studio by its backdrop (03:20).

[1933] Night in the City 小玩意. Director: Fei Mu / Film no longer available (03:01, Part 7). An insight is given into the rain-making process of movies here, particularly at 01:03, and it is in this scene that we see Ruan Ling-yu establish herself as a method actress with a strong emphasis on feeling. Despite her director feeling that the take was workable, she insisted on doing the scene once again because she did not feel right.

[1934] Sea of Fragrant Snow 香雪海. Director: Fei Mu / Film no longer available (05:28, Part 9)

[1934] The Goddess 神女. Director: Wu Yong Gang / Film available (00:00, Part 10). We see here an original scene from the movie, the cinematic classic where she walked down the path in a psychopathic swagger.

[1935] New Woman 新女人. Director: Tsai Chu-Sheng / Film available (04:40, Part 10). Ruan Lingyu’s agony is felt through a scene where she emphasized her will to live (“I want to live!”) repeatedly through dialogue, in stark contrast to the tempestuous period of her life at that moment.

The efforts by cinephiles of today in restoring and rescuing films of ages past and that were thoroughly enjoyed by audiences generations ago suggest the timeless nature of a good film. It is indeed humbling watching re-enactments of such key scenes of Ruan Lingyu’s movies that were shot some eight decades ago, and it suggests that a brilliant movie of today will certainly be preserved as a cinematic classic in the decades down the road. But what also ensues is a feeling of bittersweet pity, for the film prints that are no longer available, a sign of a legacy that has been lost forever and never to be recovered again. Hopefully, though, that copies of the scripts have been recovered (such that the re-enactments were possible) and film studios would count it feasible to invest in remakes in the near future.


One Response to Centre Stage/The Actress/Yuen Ling-yuk (1992) 阮玲玉

  1. walter.sim says:

    I was at the Esplanade Library researching for the upcoming exam when I chanced upon the book “Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes” (2003) edited by Chris Berry. One of the films discussed was Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage, and I felt this update was necessary to bring up some points of view that the author, Bérénice Reynaud, of the essay highlighted so as to supplement the write-up.

    Reynaud casts a very cynical eye on the motives of the film. She draws allegories towards subtle homosexual references, alleging that this does not come as very exciting given Stanley Kwan’s eventual coming out of the closet (as I wrote in my review for Lan Yu (2001)). She writes, “The director’s 146-minute cut was reduced to less than two hours for commercial release in Hong Kong. This partial invisibility is poignant, for ‘Centre Stage’ revolves around the search for the missing image of legendary star, Ruan Lingyu, most of whose films have disappeared. It is also a metaphor for another form of hindered vision: the image is there, but not seen. The most effective strategy in Centre Stage is inspired by Foucault’s “reverse discourse” that duplicates and subverts “the same vocabulary, the same cataegories by which [homosexuality is] disqualified” and renfered invisible. The denials that structure the film are therefore also double entenrdre asserting simultaneously one thing and its opposite – “I know very well, but…” Three such denials can be identified:
    • Ruan Lingyu is not alive, but Maggie Cheung is
    • Ruan Lingyu did not live in Hong Kong, but she spoke Cantonese
    • Ruan Lingyu is not a man, but she is an object of desire and/or identification for male homosexuals”

    Reynaud dissects the interspersing of scenes involving fictional reconstructions of Ruan’s life through black-and-white video interviews from survivors of Ruan’s time and Ruan’s biographers, along with the cast and crew of the contemporary adaption; also, excerpts of footage from the film prints that are still existent, along with Cheung’s reconstructions of scenes from lost films, as well as production stills and photographs. This is a form of “mise en abyme” — Ruan Lingyu co-exists, “diffracting her image to the point of vertigo”. The schizophrenic nature is further enhanced through the use of “mirror scenes” (one of which discussed above). Reynaud also brings in the Freudian concept of ‘fort-da’ (gone there) in a “now you see Ruan Lingyu, now you don’t” manner.

    All in all this marks an interesting read – though not exactly one that I am entirely convinced by given the extremity of the view. Yet it is worth a notion throwing up for discussion. Does the film seek to portray a form of double bind? Another key scene that is worth of note is how the joyous scenes of Ruan dancing in the ballroom the night before her death were paradoxically interspersed with scenes of Ruan on her deathbed as the directors she had worked with pay their last respects. Similarly, the stark irony stands clear that both events, while on the surface bears directly opposite semiotics in the sense that the former is an occasion of joy, happiness and revel while the other is an occasion of grief and loss, both are shot in such a manner that they are both communal events. Ruan in both occasions was both surrounded by people, people who react with each other and to her as well.

    I am not entirely bought over by Reynaud’s arguments though, simply because I think reading too much into film–as in, to her extent–is really a killjoy that takes away the pleasure of watching and enjoying film for what it really is. While her viewpoints may stand true, I do believe the film should be best enjoyed for what it essentially is: a tribute to a legendary actress who passed on at the peak of her career, perhaps the Heath Ledger of the Shanghai film industry.

    Sim Mao Xian, Walter


    Reynaud, B. (2003). Centre Stage: A Shadow in Reverse. In C. Berry [Ed.] (2003), Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, pp.31-37. London: Cromwell Press

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