When the Stars Align
By Chloe Lizotte
Stanley Kwan’s 1991 masterwork Center Stage unites two preeminent actresses divided by generations, Maggie Cheung and the silent-screen star she embodies, Ruan Lingyu.
“The whole posture is resistance. But you’re too weak and you know it. This should be visible from your eyes.” This direction is given on the set of Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (1934), as re-created within Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage (1991). Since the backdrop is silent cinema, the emotions Wu describes—a complex alchemy of circumstance and character—need to play across the face of lead actress Ruan Lingyu (Maggie Cheung) with an elemental simplicity. As Ruan mulls over the direction, casting her eyes down while her expression seems to fall, we can’t help but try to read into her inner state. But before that can sink in, Kwan cuts ahead to the action of the scene, where Ruan is immersed in her character—and before that can sink in, Kwan cuts to the same scene in The Goddess, where the real Ruan goes through the same motions.
This shape-shifting quality defines Center Stage. On the surface, it’s a biopic about Ruan Lingyu, one of the defining stars of silent-era Chinese cinema, and tragically immortalized after vicious tabloid smears drove her to suicide at age 24. But Kwan, known for searing Hong Kong melodramas like Rouge (1987), exposes the impossibility of accessing her through such limited means. The least inventive biopics often force an unwieldy life into a formula: there is the “origin story” of childhood, the discovery of talent or some other pretext for the subject’s notoriety, and their meteoric rise and (usually) fall. A close reading of a personal life usually offers a convenient cipher. Yet the closer Center Stage gets to Ruan, the more complicated the prospect of understanding her becomes. Kwan’s dramatized story often pauses to survey surviving films and photographs of the real Ruan, as well as footage of Center Stage’s cast trying to get inside the heads of the people they’re reanimating. The effect of these jarring shifts is one of a trance broken before it can take hold: each layer reminds us of the complicated collaborative contexts that shape a film, all ephemeral, historical, and personal.
So it’s fitting that Center Stage is about an actress—and the art of acting more generally. It traces Ruan’s ascent through the Shanghai film industry of the early 1930s, where her star power was iconic enough to earn comparisons to Garbo and Dietrich; Kwan seems to wink wryly at this by scripting Ruan’s directors to insist that she’s worlds apart from both icons. The filmmakers are right, but not in the dismissive way that they think they are; the silent era has a particularly acute way of crystallizing an actor’s personal presence, all centered in the drama of the human face. “One of Ruan’s favorite expressions was ‘looking up to the heavens in forlorn wordlessness,’” remarks Kwan in one of Center Stage’s behind-the-scenes segments while, with an embarrassed laugh, trying to pantomime the same body language. Throughout the film, Cheung’s Ruan processes similarly intricate directions while preparing for a single shot—and although we’re invited to contemplate what’s on her mind, the process remains powerfully private, everything relevant laid out with a wordless eloquence in the final image.
Instead of delineating where a performance ends and a performer begins, Center Stage dwells in the space of their combination.
Center Stage was also a breakout movie for its star, Maggie Cheung, who won Best Actress at the Berlinale for her performance. Prior to the film, Cheung was best known as Jackie Chan’s co-star in Police Story (1985), although she had started building some quieter, contemplative credits with Kwan (1989’s Full Moon in New York) and Wong Kar-wai (1988’s As Tears Go By and 1990’s Days of Being Wild). At the beginning of Center Stage, Kwan narrates some context on Ruan’s career—once Ruan started working with the socially engaged Shanghai production company Lianhua, she was able to jump from supporting characters to more complex leads—and Cheung, with a laugh, remarks, “We share similar fates then!” Since we’re introduced to Cheung in this way, it seems seductive to try and parse her performance through emotional parallels, but her laugh, as unselfconscious as one of Ruan’s close-ups, tells a different story. At the heart of many of Cheung’s roles is a magnetism that never fully discloses its secrets, from her masterful control in Wong’s In the Mood for Love (2000) to the affable-yet-professional version of herself she plays in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996). In the latter, directly inspired by Center Stage, Cheung travels to Paris to star in a dysfunctional mid-’90s remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les Vampires (1915-16), with the cast and crew striving to glean how Cheung feels about the project, or if she can understand their petty squabbles in French. Their conclusions are usually far off the mark, instead evincing their own insecurities. Meanwhile, Cheung burrows deeper into her character, trying to transcend the film’s historical origins and her bizarre present-day reality. In the end, she creates something timeless from that blend—and entirely her own.
Instead of delineating where a performance ends and a performer begins, Center Stage dwells in the space of their combination. The question then becomes: what are actors looking for in their characters, and what are members of the audience looking for when they watch? To 1930s viewers, Ruan came to emblematize multifaceted women often undone by cruel social stigmas; in The Goddess, for instance, she plays a single mother who turns to sex work to provide for her son, which leads the grade-school board to expel him on principle. The depth that Ruan brings to the role is still electric—and, Kwan hints, the product of a perspective that the filmmakers couldn’t have generated on their own. When Center Stage’s Ruan arrives at Lianhua one day, she finds director Bu Wancang walking a group of young actresses through their characters’ motivations, but only in monolithic terms: one actress is “the girl of the times,” another symbolizes purity. Yet Ruan takes a different tack to convince Bu that she has the necessary range to take on demanding leads. To make the case, she wipes off her makeup and relaxes into a neutral expression—a blank slate, ready to be filled.
Cheung’s Ruan has a rare gift for the emotional intuition required to paint that canvas; on the set of Sun Yu’s Little Toys (1933), she helps her co-star Li Lili delve deeper into a scene where her character dies in her mother’s arms after a bombing. “You might try smiling at mom to comfort her and lighten her sorrow,” Ruan advises her. Gradually, we learn about the constellation of subconscious influences on her performances, particularly the fraught triangle connecting Ruan; her first love Zhang Damin, whose family employed Ruan’s mother as a housemaid; and her second, tea tycoon Tang Jishan, who hid from Ruan that he was already married. Their legal strife became the subject of a tabloid scandal after Ruan starred in Cai Chusheng’s New Women (1935), based on journalists’ smearing of actress and screenwriter Ai Xia one year earlier—two cycles of harassment that pushed both women to take their own lives. But apart from clarifying these basic facts, Kwan’s interviews with Ruan’s few surviving contemporaries leave her unresolved: she didn’t often reveal how she felt about her career, or the people surrounding her, or even the possibility of an affair with Cai. Kwan draws attention to scenes that play upon Ruan’s biography; one director deliberately stages a scene to mimic the way that Ruan’s own father passed. But Ruan’s artistry is not so straightforward. Although it’s unavoidable that personal experience shapes performance, does that historical record really help us understand that person’s relationship with it—and how much are we privileged to know?
When pressed by Kwan to decode Ruan’s personal life, Shen Chi, author of the biography Ruan Lingyu: Movie Star of the Decade, tells him that the “circumstances were beyond her control.” And behavior often defies logic, an idea that the film widens beyond Ruan; when Li recalls her inability to cry at Ruan’s funeral, she struggles to adequately explain why she could not. The bottom line of Center Stage is that the outside world can’t approximate the disorganized storm within a person: Kwan and Cheung can only coax Ruan’s messy vitality back into the present tense, but carefully, without ensnaring it in a definition. “That’s your true face, isn’t it?” asks Tang when he happens upon Ruan rehearsing a scene from The Goddess. It is and it isn’t, and while sauntering through the shadows of their bedroom, she lets the question hang in the air between them. •
Chloe Lizotte is a writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Reverse Shot and Screen Slate, with additional bylines in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Vulture, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She has also worked with the Tribeca Film Festival as an Assistant Programmer for their New Online Work section.