Center Stage (1991)

The director’s cut does sometimes feel its length, but otherwise this is a solid biopic by Stanley Kwan about one of the most eminent Chinese actresses from early 20th century, played by a stunning Maggie Cheung.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #1,316

Dir. Stanley Kwan
1991 | Hong Kong | Biography/Drama | 154 mins | 1.85:1 | Cantonese, Mandarin & English

PG (passed clean)

Cast: Maggie Cheung, Chin Han, Tony Leung Ka Fai
Plot: The most important actress of prewar Chinese cinema, Ruan Lingyu took her own life at the age of 24 after she was attacked by tabloids over an adultery scandal. Center Stage alternates between recreations of moments from Ruan’s life, clips from her films, and on-camera conversations about Ruan.
Awards: Won Silver Bear for Best Actress (Berlinale); Won 3 Golden Horses – Best Actress, Best Cinematography & Special Jury Award; Nom. for 9 Golden Horses – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup & Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Original Score, Best Original Song.
Distributor: Fortune Star

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Ruan Lingyu; Actress
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: National Museum of Singapore – Singapore Chinese Film Festival
First Published: 23 Jun 2016
Spoilers: No

Director Stanley Kwan, known for such works as Rogue (1987), Red Rose White Rose (1994) and Lan Yu (2001), brings to the table Center Stage, a film of remarkable inquisition, making use of its meta-filmic elements to engage the past in order to inform the present. 

The past is represented by Ruan Lingyu, perhaps the most famous Chinese silent movie star of the 1930s, appearing in a handful of films of which most have been lost forever.  She lived to 24 before taking her life, sending shockwaves throughout the country. 

Maggie Cheung, in a well-deserved Silver Berlin Bear-winning performance, embodies Ruan as she (and Kwan) bring her tragic story to the big screen.  Her acting is top-notch in what could be one of her finest screen displays.

It’s a very challenging role—not only must Cheung be Ruan, she must also be Maggie Cheung playing Ruan.  Kwan also brings his meta-cinema to another level by having her and other co-stars including Carina Lau speak with him and (much) older actors from the ’30s in a dialogue about Ruan’s life and legacy. 

In essence, Center Stage functions as a biopic, reenactment and documentary.  It also acts as a discourse by Hong Kong filmmakers of the ’90s on China’s cinema of the ’30s.  Perhaps because of Kwan’s ambition in attempting to bring everything together, he becomes obsessed with paying tribute to Ruan by taking it as far as he possibly could, and not always for the better. 

There were at least two opportunities to bring the film to a close—one involves a recurring dance floor sequence; the other was when the original song ‘Fallen Heart’, sung by Tracy Huang, first comes into play—which would have been tonally spot-on, and kept the picture tighter. 

Grade: B+



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