Center Stage

Essay

Split Image

By ALIZA MA

With Center Stage, Stanley Kwan blends formal styles to tell the story of the tragic silent Shanghainese starlet Ruan Lingyu and redefines the biopic.

Ruan Lingyu
Ruan Lingyu

Director Stanley Kwan perfectly summed up Shanghainese silent film starlet Ruan Lingyu’s trademark facial expression as one “looking up at the heavens with a forlorn wordlessness.” He has spent more time contemplating this gesture than most people—the precisely tapered swallow-wing brows, downturned bow-tie lips, and, most of all, the dark eyes somehow always brilliant with light and undeterred by the sadness of the other features; a face emblematic of a bygone era of Shanghainese glamour during a short-lived period of prosperity and relative calm between war and revolution in a century full of upheavals, when the city of Shanghai—a cultural capital designated “the Paris of the East” and frequented by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward—and its myriad of movie studios churned out the vast majority of the 500-plus films produced in China throughout the early 1930s.

Kwan first encountered Ruan Lingyuin in Hong Kong as part of a retrospective of her surviving films. Watching her on the big screen, he was struck by her uniquely pliant charisma, which allowed her to disappear into a diverse range of roles, and her distinctly permeating spirit—“qi zhi” in Chinese—that made her strikingly modern and imbued her acting with more gravitas and naturalism than the other leading ladies of the time. Between 1930 and 1935, the Guangdong-born, Shanghai-raised actress made 10 films with Lianhua, a thriving studio in the golden era of Shanghainese silent cinema known for making politically progressive films starring a roster of well-known leading actresses. The melancholic roles Ruan tended to play—a mother who loses her daughter to the Japanese invasion in Little Toys (1933); a woman forced into prostitution in order to support her baby in The Goddess (1934); an actress who commits suicide in New Women (1934), a fictionalized account of Ai Xia’s last days—and aspects of her personal life, such as her working-class provenance and her relationships with the two men who consecutively took advantage of her in different turns, were often unfairly conflated by the mosquito press.

Buckling under the image of herself that others had created and manipulated, and caving to untenable social pressures around her, Ruan ended her own life in 1935—on March 8, what is now commonly known as International Women’s Day—at the height of her career. Her funeral, famously dubbed by The New York Times as “the most spectacular of the century,” was a zeitgeist-making moment, attended by an estimated 300,000 people, and with three fans in Shanghai committing suicide in response. Unlike other actresses at Lianhu—such as Li Lili or Mei Lin, who faded into obscurity with the waves of political tumult that followed the mid-1930s—Ruan’s life story has become inextricably linked to the circumstances of its abrupt and tragic curtailment, her image frozen in time as an elegant, precocious, if tortured young woman, symbolizing a pre-revolutionary Shanghai at its cultural zenith on the one hand, and a cautionary tale of the destructive forces of a misogynist and hypocritical media on the other. Center Stage is Kwan’s deconstructed biopic about the actress in her five most active years at Lianhua leading up to her death; a reverse-engineering of the historical vicissitude behind her mythology and that “look of forlorn wordlessness”; the culmination of Kwan’s years-long research and inquiry into her adversities on and offset, her potent on-screen magnetism, and the causes for her tragic suicide at only age 24.

Kwan’s supple and multifaceted portrait of Ruan bears a prismatic self-reflexivity that transcends the garden variety of high postmodernity that proliferated in the 1990s, and adds profound, new dimensions of self-awareness to the narrative of its familiar subject. 

On paper, Center Stage is a dubious proposition. A central fallacy of the biopic that few manage to escape is the genre’s superficial commitment to fidelity and verisimilitude in portraying a subject’s lived reality, and, paradoxically, the edits, omissions, and artistic liberties needed to reduce any complex life down to feature-film length and form. A particularly frightful device of the biopic is the perfunctory use of historical reenactments, which, no matter how skillfully executed, only leave room for audiences to compliment or castigate which “scenes” from a person’s life have been deemed worthy of transforming into spectacle, and which ones have been left out. Moreover, the backstage drama—movies about the filmmaking process—which lays further claims to revealing truths behind the illusory nature of cinematic creation but which oftentimes utilizes its toolkit to affect an even more heightened degree of artifice, tends to proliferate rather than effectively dissect the mythology of its subjects.

Yet Kwan’s supple and multifaceted portrait of Ruan bears a prismatic self-reflexivity that transcends the garden variety of high postmodernity that proliferated in the 1990s, and adds profound, new dimensions of self-awareness to the narrative of its familiar subject. Kwan connects breathtaking reconstructions of Ruan’s life with his research materials—such as archival photographs and film scenes featuring the actress, interviews with surviving subjects, and documentary footage of the director and his cast—into a complex patchwork of analogue textures. The archival images wear the patina of age on their surfaces and draw attention to the fragility and perishability of their mediums and of the history they carry. In contrast, Kwan’s depictions of the past are anachronistically portrayed most strikingly and exquisitely, saturated in rich jewel tones and draped in an unforgettable romantic haze that, although befitting of the Art Deco styles of the 1930s, assert their own artifice. Conversely, the contemporary footage of Kwan and his cast, which give a rare glimpse into the director’s emotional, creative, and technical processes are captured in black and white and with a timeless vérité style that, against the film’s other frameworks, elevates discussions around the historical figure into the present tense. The plurality of filmic realities in Center Stage negates any singular privileged subjectivity and refuses any easily reducible story of Ruan’s life, comprising an unclassifiable, beguilingly hybridized masterpiece that transcends the sum of its parts. From its idiosyncratic pastiche, Kwan brilliantly draws forth a larger sense of the incompleteness of history, prompting questions about the very mechanisms that create narratives and their gaps.

Melodramas and, more specifically, the woman’s film, is a favored genre for Kwan. It is an inclination linking his cinema to the masterpieces of Shanghainese cinema’s golden era. His previous output, Women (1985), Love Unto Waste (1986), Rouge (1987), and Full Moon In New York (1989), which marked the first time he and Maggie Cheung worked together, all tell stories of female characters facing romantic uncertainties and negotiating their personal freedom against the external restrictions imposed by their surroundings. Center Stage was a milestone film for its star, Maggie Cheung. The beauty queen and model turned actress had few opportunities to surpass the hapless “flower vase” roles offered to her before working with heavyweight directors of the Hong Kong New Wave like Wong Kar-wai and Kwan. She gives one of the best performances of her career in Center Stage, playing the keenly perceptive and emotionally complex Ruan with subtlety and depth within the film’s meta-drama—a performance that could have easily been overdone by a lesser actress—displaying her own maturation in her craft within the layered portrayal of her antecedent. Among the starry array of talented women involved in Center Stage are also key New Wave actresses Carina Lau and Cecilia Yip, and the writer/producer/distributor Peggy Chiao—a monumental figure in Asian cinema best known for her collaborations with directors like Wang Xiaoshuai, Tsai Ming-liang, and Olivier Assayas—who wrote the screenplay for the film.

Maggie Cheung as Ruan Lingyu in Center Stage
Maggie Cheung as Ruan Lingyu in Center Stage

Ruan’s Shanghai was a place of cataclysmic transformation: a year after her birth in 1910, the Nationalist Party toppled 250 years of Qing Dynasty regime, marking the end of imperial rule in China. Instead of widening his canvas to the broader vistas of society, Kwan reconstructs this milieu in the form of a chamber drama, setting his scenes in a series of velvety, opiate-tinged enclosures, capturing Ruan in shallow focus at Lianhua studio; the house her second lover eventually moves her into; the nightclub where she drinks cocktails and dances to rumba music; and eventually, heartbreakingly, her coffin. These confined spaces and Kwan’s framing, which often makes viewers aware of her presence in smaller frames within the film’s frame, underscore Ruan’s sense of isolation from her environment. A pervasive sense emerges from the film’s stylistic idiosyncrasies that the relative calm within its five-year window—when the war between the Nationalist and Communist parties had reached a temporary détente to defeat the Japanese armies together, and just before the Japanese occupation of the city—was only provisional, and gives a foreboding feeling that the worst of times were yet to come.

Although Shanghainese women were among the first in China to negotiate a new kind of freedom within the modernity that had emerged from their exposure to a mix of Chinese traditions and Western values (in 1928, a woman successfully sued the men in her family over her right to inheritance), problems of class inequality and lingering feudalist misogyny still pervaded. Kwan shows this in Center Stage through an entrancing scene reenacting the filming of Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess: having fallen into the trap of a corrupt policeman, Ruan is asked to resist with only her posture and the look in her eyes, because she is otherwise resigned to her weakness in the face of the man who will doubtlessly overpower her. Although The Goddess was an attempt to address the somber reality that in Shanghai at the time roughly one in every 12 women had to resort to prostitution to support herself and her family, Kwan shows that Ruan’s stature quickly became associated with her character’s unflattering reputation thanks to the slanderous gossip circulated in the press. Through its stratas of fiction and nonfiction, Center Stage brilliantly draws out the incongruities between the public‘s idealized expectations of Ruan versus how she was actually characterized by them.

Ruan is often seen humming the theme song to The Blue Angel (1930) in Center Stage. She looks up to Marlene Dietrich, the embodiment of 1930s feminine strength and glamour, but she finds it impossible to take such agency in her personal relationships—one with Zhang Damin, a chronic gambler extorting money from her, and another with the emotionally and physically abusive tea tycoon Tang Jishan. With his film’s elliptical form and with commentary from his cast members relating their own lives to the actress’s woes, Kwan shows how Ruan’s public image was split between the archetypal crestfallen woman and that of a sleek new modern muse that’s impossible to reduce to any singular narrative, her brief life encompassing contradictions that speak to the historical crossroads upon which she was perched, and of which she came to symbolize.

The most emotionally potent scenes in Center Stage are perfectly distilled vignettes with little dialogue, such as Ruan’s visit home to her mother and adopted daughter, when the three generations of women hold each other up to change a light bulb on the ceiling; or when she joins director Cai Cusheng on the steps of the studio in a squatting position, reflecting on this quintessential posture of the peasant class throughout the history of their country. These moments feel like vividly drawn memories suffused with a sense of preciousness because of their ephemerality. In the gulf of time and space between these carefully composed images of the past and the black-and-white documentary scenes of the present lies the implicit connection between Kwan’s and Ruan’s cinematic legacies. After Ruan passed away, World War II, the civil war, and the Cultural Revolution propelled waves of migration from Shanghai to Hong Kong, spurring on a kind of renaissance of the filmmaking, music, and fashion industries in the latter port city (Li Min-wei, a co-founder of Lianhua was later dubbed “the godfather of Hong Kong cinema”). It’s as if Hong Kong bore a kind of second life to the truncated history of pre-revolutionary Shanghai as represented by Ruan Lingyu: a straight line can be traced between her domains and the fecund conditions that gave rise to the Hong Kong New Wave in which Kwan towers. And only in Hong Kong could Kwan have seen and created this work of ultimate devotion to Ruan’s films in the 1980s: they were dismissed as being “decadent” and banned by the Cultural Revolution in Mainland China for decades until only recently when their standing of greatness was reinstated in the country. The enduring allure of Center Stage lies not just in its ravishing beauty and formal inventiveness but in the way that, by complicating the iconic image of Ruan Lingyu, it reaches through generations and histories and across harbors and cinematic traditions to better elucidate the here and the now. •

Aliza Ma is the Head of Programming at Metrograph.

Center Stage