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I'm a novice at Chinese history, especially in the area of periods of
film, and, being American, I'm particularly fascinated by it and
comparing it to period pieces set in the 1930's US (a la "Cat's Meow"
or "Miller's Crossing"). I was particularly taken with Centre Stage's
attention to detail in period dress, music, and movie deal-making among
the industry. As opposed to American movies focusing of stars/starlets'
merciless climb to the top of the industry, Maggie Cheung plays Ruan as
a kind, clever, and talented actress whose versatility and
assertiveness helps her move beyond pigeonholing by the industry to
play a wide range of parts--revolutionary, new woman, peasant-girl.
One part it seems which has been overlooked in the few reviews I've read is how this image of feminism illustrates China's version of liberation. Cheung plays Ruan as both a feminist in charge of her career, as well as a woman who is in control of her scandalous affair with Lawrence Ng's character. The difference between her and him being that men are understood to have concubines and are forgiven for the indecency, while Maggie's career is ruined (though she never apologizes for it in any way). Traditional roles still trump profession in 1930's China, but the sadness of it all being retold shows a strong Ruan overcoming every possible trap--losing a career over an affair, especially--and maintaining her desires for success.
For Cheung's performance, it never wavered. I was a big fan of hers in "Irma Vep" and she was just a strong in this role playing Ruan. Effortless shifts between emotion ("So, you're showing me your true face," her lover says as she blows smoke in his face obstinately, then switches to a kindly-wife smile--is she practicing her role in the movie, or is that really her?), graceful poise courtesy of the era before slouching was cool, private display of emotion, and elegant role-play as mistress and ex-wife with Tony Leung.
I'd have to know more about the history of Ruan to know if this is an accurate portrayal of her life, but the film-making style of inter-cutting Cheung playing her in the 30's while interviews with Ruan's colleagues from that time as they are interviewed by the director of the movie is a fascinating way to present her history. Is it a bio-pic? Is it a historical fiction? Is it a retrospective? It's all and more.
A biopic of Chinese silent film actress from the 30's, Ruan Lingyu, with
Maggie Cheung as Ruan. This movie tells the sad story of a young woman
is rescued from poverty by show business, and is subsequently destroyed by
it. It's a classic story of the patriarchal double standard in which an
adulterous woman is punished by society while an adulterous man is
Maggie Cheung's performance is quite good. First of all, she pulls off being an actress playing an actress who is very immersed in her work.
Everyone in this movie is exceedingly composed - they speak carefully, and walk perpetually as if on eggshells. No one really comes alive until a scene at a dance hall near the end. But despite all the sugary politeness, Cheung successfully conveys a woman who is being slowly destroyed by her oppressive environment. And there are a couple scenes in which she completely loses it, and it's very affecting to watch.
The movie is very interestingly interspersed with clips from Ruan's movies, documentary footage of Ruan's surviving contemporaries, and the actors' conversations with the director.
The other actors, such as Tony Leung Ka Fai, Carina Lau, and Waise Lee, who are so interesting in other movies, all have little to nothing to do, except to look nice in period costume.
Also interesting is the fact that Carina Lau (who plays fellow actress Lily Li) looks much more like the real Ruan Lingyu than Maggie Cheung does.
Watching this film is a bit like watching a PBS documentary - edifying, educational, but not exactly fun.
I stumbled on a DVD copy of the film from the local library, but before
that I never heard of this film. Stanley Kwan also directed Rouge, a
film I enjoyed and liked very much, and that prompted my decision to
make the time investment to watch it.
Center Stage, aka Yuen Ling-Yuk (Cantonese pronunciation of the main character) or Ruan Ling-Yu (the mandarin equivalent) is a slow film, a period piece focused on the life and premature death of an actress in the 30's in China. As a kid growing up in Asia several decades ago I never watched B/W silent films, so Yuen was never known to me, until now.
It was a slow film, but well acted and researched. I enjoyed the depiction of Shanghai in the 30's and the personification of various people in the entertainment circle. This film is obviously not for everyone. For the selected few with the interest or the cultural background, it is a film worth watching. If nothing else, it is a cultural lesson on the filming business and a snapshot of the Chinese society in 1930. Seeing some big name actors in it, doing what they do best, is a bonus.
I saw Stanley Kwan's "Centre Stage" ("Yuen Ling-yuk") at a university
series "New East Asian Cinema" on February 27, 2006. The film is a
biography of Ruan Ling-yu (1910-1935), a silent film star of Chinese
The film describes the life and meteoric rise to fame of young Shanghai actor Ruan Ling-yu (played well by Maggie Cheung), who from the age of 16 till her death at age 24, was featured, often in a lead role, in over a dozen films. She was involved in extramarital affairs with two men and eventually the double standards that women suffer by catch up with her (but not with the married suitors), and dogged media slander her reputation. With her honor at stake, she sees no recourse but to commit suicide, and does so with an overdose of barbiturates. According to the wikipedia entry about her (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruan_Ling_Yu), "her funeral procession was reportedly three miles long, with three women committing suicide during it."
The film cleverly goes back and forth in time, and includes excellent interludes from some of Ruan Ling-yu's films. These snippets, as well as the local color we see in 1930s Shanghai, reveal a vivacious setting in Chinese history that I would enjoy learning more about, including seeing some of the period cinema.
Not previously knowing anything about Ruan Ling-yu, I of course cannot vouch for the realism of the portrayal, but the acting of Maggie Cheung revealed a strong, magnetic, kind, talented, determined, and yet slightly aloof woman who enjoys many admirers. The other characters were not nearly as well developed, but that is understandable with the focus being on Ruan Ling-yu.
I wonder if Kwan could have set the stage, so to speak, a bit more economically, and found the first half to two thirds rather slow. But, without giving anything away, the ending (of course we know that suicide is the true history) is calmly dramatic and captivating. The manner in which Cheung shows the actor saying goodbye to her close friends, who don't know that this is in fact her farewell, is touching - I wonder if this is how it happened. A film worth watching and which I would like to see again - 7.5 stars out of 10.
--Dilip Feb. 27, 2006
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There are many pieces that should have been done better, but overall,
the presentation is quite refreshing (interpersing footages and
interviews with the main part of the movie)) and a story well-told.
SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THE REST
A few things worth clarifying -- Ruan was not married to Chang Ta-Min and she was not concerned about his accusation. It was her affair with Tang Chi-Shan (who refused to get a divorce) that bothered Ruan. Furthermore it was unclear to me if Ruan's union with Tang was voluntary or not. He's the boss of the studio afterall, and the scene with blowing the cigarette at him was taken from a movie in which a prostitute was forced to bed with a gangster.
She clearly liked Tsai Chu-sheng, but this person only "talked." He flirted with her and used her for his movies but never stood up to protect his movie or Ruan (even when the immediate trigger to Ruan by the press was her role in his movie).
Ruan rarely demonstrated her emotions but one can see them clearly during the filming of her movies.
In the end, it seems that part of her depression came from thinking out loud with the characters she was acting and empathizing with their predicaments. Then, these were amplified by the many unfairness tossed at her in real life, leading to her suicide. Pretty devastating!
PS. I actually liked a lot of the earlier slow scene between Ruan and her mother and adopted daughter. Much was reveal in those seemingly casual daily conversations (like the soup her mother prepared for Chang). Later on she was hiding almost everything to herself, and one can only get hints from subtle facial expressions etc.
This is a biopic about Yuan (Ruan) Ling-Wu, a movie star of the 30's in China. I've never seen any film she's been in, but I am very intrigued now. Maggie Cheung is excellent in this role. I feel Ms. Cheung is one of the best actresses in film, from any country. She is always interesting to watch. She plays Yuan sympathetically, passionately and solemnly. Looking at her in this role, looking at her pretty eyes, you can tell she understood this actress. At times, she looks flat out beautiful, especially when she smiles. I liked the style of this film, that the real Maggie Cheung comments on Yuan Ling-Wu during the film. Also commenting is the now departed contemporary of Ling-Wu, the very good actress Lilly Li (a few of her films have been recently released on DVD, and should be sought out). The film has a tragic air to it, as Ruan Ling-Wu committed suicide at the tender age of 25. Even if, like me, you have never heard of the actress, see this film. Ms. Cheung, with her smile, her sorrow, her anger all portrayed brilliantly through the film (she won Best Actress in Asia, richly deserved, just blows you away. Oh, and did I mention, she even dances in this film. A triumph, richly deserving of your time.
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
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I don't mean to say anything other than the title chosen. Ms. Ruan is a
typical Chinese woman, who believes her innocence would never be
questioned, in real life and in the movie. When she finally became a
movie star, she kind of lost and still hoped she could stick to an
elementary sort of love. The fact is she could never return and no one
would stay the same.
The movie did a wonderful job in comparing two different eras. Maggie, the actress who suffered a lot in real life, matched Ms. Ruan's character very well. The history here seemed too convoluted and trivial, if not meaningless, to many westerners. But as a Chinese, I appreciate every delicate piece in the movie. I still remember the famous saying from one of the greatest Chinese poets -- Qu Yuan.
With wind blowing, I march into peace of death.
That's the kind of thought in Ms. Ruan's last minute. And the sheer beauty there is quite different from Japanese, Korean or any other oriental culture. That's Chinese. I call it non-extreme idealism, if still you think it is idealism. :)
This film took me two weeks to watch. I had begun this film , but found
myself so bored with the story that it couldn't keep my interest. In
fact, last night when I finally finished the film, I had to keep myself
awake by pulling at my hairs on my head to keep me from dozing during
I call it a documentary, but it is actually a representation of her life as an actress played by modern actresses. It is similar to the film JFK with several actors playing the part of actual people with clips of the event sewn throughout the film. This was quite possibly the dullest film ever made. I am surprised that it won any awards, much less sweeping the Hong Kong Film Festival. The characters were one-dimensional. They had no spirit, no soul, no care only to walk around in period piece costumes. Everyone in this movie is exceedingly composed - they speak carefully, and walk perpetually as if on eggshells. No one really comes alive until a scene at a dance hall near the end.
But despite all the sugary politeness, Cheung successfully conveys a woman who is being slowly destroyed by her oppressive environment. There are a couple scenes in which she completely loses it, and it's very affecting to watch, but not worth two hours of my time. I had trouble understanding this film. There was a rumor that when it was released at the film festival in 1992, it was accidentally shown out of order, yet it still won the praise of critics. That doesn't make any sense to me. How can a film be out of sequence, yet still being considered the best out there? There was times that I felt I was watching a PBS special, but a very poorly done special.
If a person from the streets were to come up to me and ask me what my favorite part of this film to me would be, I would have no answer. I did not like one portion of this film. The characters were dull, the story was tough to follow, and the pacing was completely off. Nothing made sense in this film. No acting actually occurred in this film. This was one of my first experiences with Hong Kong cinema, and I think I perhaps started on the wrong foot. I am looking forward to my next film from Hong Kong, because it can only be better than this. Even if it only showed growing grass for an hour and a half, it would be better. Perhaps I am being too negative about this film, but I just couldn't get into it.
Sorry Hong Kong!
Grade: * out of *****
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