Amidst the frantic zoo of the Hong Kong film industry in the late ’80s–early ’90s, Stanley Kwan’s signature films were radically, entrancingly meditative, and Center Stage (1991) remains his chef-d’oeuvre, a deceptively rich daydream about the life of movies. It never got a proper release here back in the day (neither did much of the more popular whizz-bang pulp of Tsui Hark, John Woo, or Ching Siu-tung), and so now it sidles in for a New York run three decades later, a delicate thing that could be blown away by the merest cynical sigh.
In contrast to Wong Kar-wai, his HK heartbreak contemporary, Kwan’s ruminative excursions have almost always been focused on women, and Center Stage is a full-on tragic biopic, swooning sadly over the last few years of Ruan Lingyu (Maggie Cheung), who became China’s most beloved screen star in the early ’30s (when the industry was still silent) and then committed suicide at the age of 24. Her brief and mysterious downward trajectory — it was relentless tabloid gossip about her divorce and affair with a married millionaire that slammed her — would vex a Hollywood biographer, but Kwan isn’t looking for melodrama so much as lamentation.
That is, when he’s in Ruan’s diegetic “reality” — which he often isn’t. Instead, Kwan crafts a fugue of meta layers, freely cutting from his luxurious historical reenactments to weathered footage from Ruan’s actual ’30s films, recreations of lost films’ imagery (shades of Guy Maddin’s Seances project decades later), behind-the-scenes production meeting chats with Cheung and the rest of the cast and crew (some of which seem rehearsed), doc interviews with surviving Ruan-era vets and scholars, and footage of Kwan filming all of it (and himself) — and sometimes slipping from one to the other within a single shot. Eruptions and patterns in Ruan’s life are frequently synched up with the story in a vintage Ruan film; a studio’s huge painted skyline, complete with chimneys issuing real smoke, repeatedly serves as the characters’ horizon, as though it were a genuine vista. Romantic fiction, documentary, archival footage, film history reinvention: It may sound like post-Godardian gameplaying, but the effect is purely elegaic, even as it doubles down on the sense of Ruan, like all movie icons, seeming at once so familiar and so untouchable.
It’s one of those movies crazy in love with movies, and as Ruan, Cheung is a true heartbreaker: radiant, sweet, and compassionate, a larger-than-life goddess of impossible poise, tenderness, and confident modesty. Kwan’s film follows the making of her most famous films as she’s ghosted by scandal and circled by selfish men, but often history (including references to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria) takes a backseat behind the in-between moments that really make up any life.
Redefining “sashay,” Cheung’s Ruan is seen more often than not watching other people with undisguised joy, her untroubled sensibility cutting off cliched notions of destructive celebrity or egomania. In fact, the Chinese film industry, though perfectly capable then of producing true movie stars and stirring public obsessions, is depicted as a humbly casual, and decidedly small, business, with few hierarchies or powerplays. It’s not, at any rate, a system that overwhelms or underaccomodates Ruan, whose radiant warmth naturally draws every other character to her.
The aura of sorrow permeates the film long before the climactic funeral passage, which mixes fiction and testimony even further. Photographing his actress with Von Sternbergian fervor, Kwan was apparently hypnotized, as is easy to be, by Cheung’s quiet smiles and luxurious movements — one sequence has Cheung listening to filmmakers chatter on a sunlit stairwell as she descends, stops, climbs back up a bit, and then pauses at the window, distracted. For Kwan and us, watching her is why we’re there. (Shame more filmmakers haven’t been as impacted as Kwan by their encounter with the opulent visual assault of Bertolucci’s The Conformist.) It may be more for Cheung’s grace and lambency than actual acting that she won at the Berlin Film Festival, but so? If anything, Center Stage is a mournful study of what happens when you film someone, and her image attains its own force in the world. ❖