As intimate as it is lavish, Stanley Kwan’s landmark 1991 biopic Center Stage has finally received the illustrious Blu-ray release it deserves, thanks to the tireless efforts of Film Movement and its specialty Classics imprint ($29.99). Like the screen icon it depicts, this transfer positively glows, shimmering with memory, criticism and the very foundations of cinema itself.
Center Stage dramatizes, in a profoundly postmodern way, the tragic life and death of Ruan Lingyu, early diva of Chinese film, who took her own life at 24 in 1935. Generations of mythmaking have surrounded the enigmatic entertainer and the events that led to her premature undoing. Kwan’s tribute is certainly the most academically rigorous; his research process, which took 18 months, is embedded into the final film.
In Kwan’s unorthodox approach, vivid re-creations from Ruan’s personal and professional lives in the 1930s Chinese studio system — like in the U.S., a male-dominated environment, with actors’ futures decided by executives in smoke-filled rooms — are interlaced with grainy black-and-white footage of Kwan and his crew discussing Ruan’s legacy and the issues surrounding her death, and interviewing surviving artists from silent Chinese cinema. Maggie Cheung, who portrays Ruan, and herself a former Miss Hong Kong, is asked what it’s like to embody an actress relegated to unserious roles by producers who couldn’t see past her porcelain façade. “We share similar fates, then,” Cheung muses.
Watching Center Stage is a bit like watching a Blu-ray’s supplemental material nestled inside the movie itself, but the result is more illuminating than that. This docu-fiction treatment, with its backstage chatter and its integration of actual footage from the few extant prints of Ruan’s films (most have been lost to time and degradation), effectively deconstructs the conventions of the biopic itself. From The Private Life of Henry VIII to Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s a genre predicated on escapist pageantry, with spectators so immersed in the historical re-enactment that we don’t pause to consider the architecture of its making. The periodic disruptions of Center Stage expose this fundamental fallacy of the biopic: We are made to look at the stitching, and the labor that created it, as well as the final tapestry.
In traditional biopics, the actor is supposed to disappear in the role. In Center Stage, we see Ruan, but we always see Maggie Cheung as well, with Kwan subtly reinforcing the actors’ struggles and similarities as they ripple across the decades. This is perhaps one reason why doubling is so common in the visual architecture of Center Stage, as captured through mirrors and windows. Cheung is and isn’t Ruan Lingyu. That said, it’s still probably Cheung’s career capstone, a meditation on the art of performance itself that captures Ruan’s tempestuousness and tenderness, her seductiveness and insecurity, her vitality and depression.
For much of her short-lived career, Ruan was said to inhabit “wallflower” roles — two-dimensional and intellectually degrading ancillary parts. In Center Stage, Cheung’s costumes, though ornate, often blend into the wallpaper of the studio settings and the houses of the men with whom she cohabits, suggesting a system of second-class status that extended off-screen as well. There is a feminist dialectic at play throughout Center Stage between Ruan’s pushes for autonomy and a world that wasn’t ready for them. I lost count of the shots in which Cheung/Ruan gazes longingly through barred windows, each image conditioning us to see her life as a prison.
And so, when the suicide sequence finally arrives, there is a soundness of mind and a clarity of purpose to Ruan’s final note, recited by Cheung in voice-over. No astute viewer could walk away from Center Stage wondering how the protagonist could have chosen this path, in which she left behind a grieving mother, an uncomprehending child and multiple lovers.
What’s perhaps most unsettling about this deceptively beautiful Fabergé egg of a film is that Cheung finds so much in Ruan’s blip of a life in which to relate. History rhymes; it doesn’t always evolve.