Ruan Lingyu – Center Stage

Hong Kong, 1991

Directed by Stanley Kwan

With Maggie Cheung (Ruan Lingyu/Herself), Lawrence Ng (Chang Tamin/Himself), Han Chin (Tang Chishan/Himself), Tony Ka Fai Leung (Tsai Chusheng/Himself), Carina Lau (Li Lyli/Herself)

The film’s Chinese title is the name of the first female star in the history of Chinese cinema (“Center Stage” is a convenient title for foreign audiences reluctant to memorize Chinese pronunciation). Her life was short but her career was brilliant: Ruan Lingyu committed suicide in March 1935, age 24, just nine years after signing up with a film company for the first time. Stanley Kwan’s feature focuses on the period starting in 1930, when she signed up with the Lianhua film company, a business seeking to become the Chinese equivalent of a big American studio, up to her suicide. Already a well-known figure, she set about playing more ambitious, tragic and politicized roles. But her personal life proved far more difficult to handle, which probably explains her suicide.

Kwan’s is not a straightforward narration. The film begins with a series of old pictures of the actress and her epoch, followed up by an interview with Maggie Cheung, the young actress who is going to impersonate her, shot in black and white. Then the awaited period piece begins, as Kwan’s camera captures in color his invented Ruan Lingyu as she is working during a shooting.

At the center of it all: Ruan Lingyu in 1935

The film, until the end, features these two layers of images, one carefully reconstructing the life of the late star, depicting alternatively her work with the Lianhua’s directors, fellow actors and bosses, and her amorous relationships, developments usually shot in soft and glamorous colors, and the other one quietly recording Kwan’s work to prepare this movie, basically the discussions he had with the cast but also an interview with a Ruan’s biographer and some surviving players of her interrupted career, scenes that are shot in black and white. Also included is footage of Ruan’s few films still available; many of them have been lost or destroyed and the reconstruction comprises reenactments of some of them.

The film thus shows how the actors tried to learn how to play in this accurate reconstruction of the past and what is the result of the talking and coaching of the director. This implies a self-critical approach to the biopic genre, but there is a mirror effect between the two layers. Many of the scenes involving Ruan deal with the actress and her colleagues, in particular Li Lyli, while they struggle to understand what their director is looking for as he directs them in a shooting. So the present’s arduous work finds an echo in the past, creating thus an interesting artistic comparison, though the sheer effort to strike the right tone and deliver the right emotion can eventually transcend the compartmentalized narrative, creating an unnerving emotion for the audience at one point.

Look at the famous final scene in Tsai Chusheng’s film “Xin nuxing – New Women”, 1935, when the lead character shouts in her hospital bed she doesn’t want to die anymore. Tsai is never satisfied with Ruan’s interpretation and keeps explaining what she is supposed to express. It is a remarkably tension-filled scene, ending with Ruan eventually reaching Tsai’s goal but then unable to stop crying after the camera stopped shooting. The powerless and worried face of Tsai is unforgettable, as he perhaps realizes he has gone too far. The film reverts back to black and white, the frame is enlarged, and we are witnessing the end of Kwan’s shooting. But the fact is that Maggie Cheung is still crying while Tony Ka Fai Leung remains listless and unsure, despite a recrimination by Kwan, about a gesture he forgot to make. Barely controllable emotions in the fiction keep filling the shooting; it becomes near impossible to draw lines and distinctions; the emotional draining of the actors’ effort runs through the entire sequence uninterrupted and makes the whole experience deeply riveting and moving.

The film stands out as a poignant examination of the work of an actor, the efforts it demands, the price it exacts and above all the impact it makes on the texture and success of a movie. Those parameters are a paramount component to make a film, whatever the authoritative and ruthless director reckons (and Kwan does like to show how imperative he can be). Tackling the life of an early movie star with a pointed interrogation of today’s actors’ concerns, hopes and methods cleverly goes right to part of the essence of cinema while examining differences. And this comparison does point to the changing attitude of actors and actresses, who may not be ready to cope with the pressures the same way as their predecessors; quite to the contrary, no one wants a tragic life.

The toll a career can takes on an actor’s life was heavy on Ruan, and this had an ironic touch. The crisis was sparked by Tsai’s movie. The story was inspired by the suicide of an actress, Ai Xia, after the press disclosed embarrassing information about her life. The heroine of “Xin nuxing – New Women” is a young, educated and independent woman who is harassed by a lover; when the fellow fails to conquer her, he slanders her; unable to find a job and to help her sick daughter, she tries to kill herself. The journalists were shocked when Tsai screened his film for them and tried to prevent its release. Tsai was forced to edit his feature while the papers reported accusations raised against Ruan by her former lover, Chang Tamin, the shiftless scion of the rich family which employed Ruan’s mother as a housemaid; then the relationship between Ruan and her new lover, businessman and womanizer Tang Chishan, worsened; it is possible, and Kwan seems to endorse the hypothesis, that the public fuss about her love affairs, complete with gossips and insults, drove to despair the actress.

The tragedy of a woman trapped by her celebrity and the attendant social constraints (visually it leads to the elegant but striking compositions putting Ruan inside a variety of frames) is terrible but it is stunning that real life could echo the logic of a fiction – though this fiction was reflecting depressing facts. Once again, boundaries are disappearing, this time creating malaise.

At the end of the film, its two layers become indistinguishable as Kwan’ work is shot in colors. This final erosion of the compartmentalization, till then generally respected, technically points to the end and symbolically brings into a single, fluid, movement the disparate acting experiences. Kwan’s narration is not only a love affair between a director and the actors; it is a deep acknowledgment of the enduring identity and strength of the Chinese cinema despite the political upheavals and horrors. But as he tracks the meaning of Ruan’s tragedy, he clearly suggests the production environment and public reception of the actors’ work may not have been that glamorous and acceptable during this heroic age of the Chinese cinema, but rather a stifling condition Ruan has been unable to put up with.

He shots her life with emotion and respect but at the same time bears no nostalgia and invites us into considering our perception of the movie stars. He illuminates her life but also the ever-changing face of the profession she chose to escape poverty. Kwan’s film solidified his position as a leader among the generation of directors bringing the Hong Kong film industry into new territories; an industry that, by the way, owed much to Ruan’s era as her native Shanghai was the Chinese Hollywood for a long time, till the dislocations brought by the second Sino-Japanese war led some producers and artists to set up in the former British colony.

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