Tony Leung Ka-fai
2 Hrs., 3 Mins.
Center Stage May 16, 2019
ew Women, from 1935, was a silent film based on the life of the acclaimed Chinese writer and performer Ai Xia, who killed herself a year earlier. Her death was blamed, in part, on negative media coverage. The actress who portrayed Ai in New Women, Ruan Lingyu, was at the height of her career when she began work on the movie. But she was also, unbeknownst to herself and the public, en route to
a fate analogous to the one of the woman she was playing: A month after the feature eventually debuted, the 24-year-old Lingyu killed herself in an eerily similar fashion. Her demise was also blamed on stressful tabloid coverage, which was exacerbated by her devolving personal life.
Ruan is better known than Ai. She’s so noted for her acting abilities and appearance, in fact, that she would, in later years, come to be recognized as China’s equivalent to the totemic silent-movie star Greta Garbo. It was inevitable, probably from the moment that she died, that Ruan’s story be dramatized. True tales of young and beautiful but also tragic women have perennially been artistic fodder for many a director. Bob Fosse made the great Star 80 (1983), a grim but intuitive movie about Playboy model turned actress Dorothy Stratten. Twenty-five years earlier, Art Napoleon helmed the maligned Too Much Too Soon, which circled around the rise and fall of Diana Barrymore, who died two years after that film’s release. Ruan gets her version of those films through Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage (1991), in which she’s poignantly played by Maggie Cheung, whose performance is among her most essential.
Center Stage ascribes to my personal belief that a biopic should capture its subject’s essence rather than work more as a play-by-play. What it does well — something that certainly has mostly to do with Cheung’s performance — is encapsulate Ruan’s emotional insecurity, and how wonderfully she could feed her anxieties and frustrations to her performances. Kwan also makes stylistic decisions as intriguing as they are unfortunately minimal. He boldly emphasizes scenes in which Cheung recreates particularly powerful flashes from Ruan’s own movies but has us watch the finished product as it appeared on screen 80-odd years ago. The decision minimizes the cheapness that comes from re-enactment. Refreshingly, we’re subversively provided with an opportunity to experience Ruan’s forgotten genius, even if transitorily. Her films are either hard to find or lost; clearly, Kwan saw a chance to further eulogize his subject and thought it better to show us the real thing rather than boringly mimic.
Unusually, he also highlights some of the production process in a documentary-like fashion. There are spots where Cheung, in costume, is asked by her director what she thinks of the woman she’s playing and what she seeks to bring to the role. In others, he tells her where he thinks she should be at emotionally. Other times Carina Lau, who portrays actress and confidant Li Lili, shares what Ruan meant to her growing up. Surviving friends and family members get some time allotted to give more context to scenes which appear in the movie.
Center Stage's distrait presentational style, though, is also its primary problem. It’s chiefly conventionally told, but it curtails total ordinariness in part because of the flourishes of metafiction and documentary. But because what’s more heavily leaned into is less interesting — orthodox dramatization — we confusingly find ourselves at odds with what we want from the movie. Might it have worked better if it were made more in the guise of Irma Vep (1996), a black comedy in which Cheung also starred that captured the behind-the-scenes mania of a film production? Would we have been more satisfied if Kwan did away with the documentary seasoning and instead offered detail to some of the characterizations and main narrative?
It’s also vague when it comes to developing the men in Ruan’s life alleged to have played major parts in motivating her suicide. They’re left more ideas than gradated characters: one is an unstable hanger-on from the past, the other a rich man with a tendency to hit. Neither is more than their loudest personality traits. By necessity, the movie leap-frogs across key moments in Ruan’s life, and does identify the years in which certain moments occurred. But the film is fragmented — like there’s more that we should see that we aren’t being exposed to.
There’s a proficiency in all areas that makes Center Stage an at-once frustrating and electric experience. It’s inventive, but it isn’t able to consistently equate inventiveness with gripping, cohesive drama. Cheung is so good in the movie, though, that, however uneven the feature is, she keeps us mesmerized — and makes the movie, which is pretty hard to find, worth chasing. B