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Baby steps for Maggie Cheung/an innovative vision of the cinema for Stanley Kwan
The experience of watching this film in 2006 has been similar to watching Marilyn Monroe in "Don't Bother to Knock" after having seen her later, greater performances. Maggie Cheung's (Garbo-like) capability to release interior emotion that will later haunt viewers in "In the Mood for Love" is beginning to take root in "Yuen Ling-yuk." Later on, Wong Kar Wai was able to use editing to sculpt her performance into consistent, unrelenting intensity. Here she is just beginning to explore the boundaries of her talent. This fits in with director Stanley Kwan's need to create a work in progress, like the productions we watch as they are filmed. He both exploits and denounces the artificial milieu as the actors slip in and out of their roles and the film steps in and out of period. The trial-and-error method of Yuen Ling-yuk is matched by Kwan's letting Cheung find her way through the moods of the character, as if she were trying on a different mask for each moment of the life she is embodying. By 2000 the integration of facial and corporal expressions into dramatic expression would be seamless.
It would be interesting to know which directors saw this film when it was shown on the festival circuit. Did Tim Burton know that he had a Chinese counterpart who also let his affection for a forgotten era in cinema guide the pace (disconcerting for many) of his tribute when he made "Ed Wood" a year later? In 1999 when Benoît Jacquot filmed "La Tosca," did he think of this film for his distancing technique that juxtaposed real singers at a recording session filmed in black-and-white with their operatic characters in colorful period costumes? Perhaps even Scorsese took inspiration for "Aviator" from the 1930s shadowy wood-paneling/glossy brilliantine look that comes much more easily to Kwan.
This film can be placed alongside "Sylvia Scarlett" or "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," wherein young actresses were given the freedom to go beyond what they had done before and reach for what they would do, under the guidance of a director whose search to take the viewer into (then) uncharted waters inspired the performers to deepen their potential.
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