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CENTER STAGE aka THE ACTRESS
1992 - Stanley Kwan
Hong Kong
90
Opening Shot

The film begins with a series of still photographs of Chinese star Ruan Ling-yu. The director of the film Stanley Kwan, begins to narrate over the images, "These are movie stills from when she was 16. Some of the prints are no longer available. Most of the film generes were folklore romances, supernatural or martial arts. They say she was mostly given causal roles or wallflowers as we call them now. Only after joining Leinhau in 1929 did she have a chance to be in serious films". The stills then cut to a closeup of actress Maggie Cheung who laughingly replies "We share similar fates then?".

The Film

One of the most original and ambitious biography films ever made and a film that undoubtedly belongs mention among the very greatest of Hong Kong cinema. Using a free flowing non-linear narrative structure the film intertwines real footage of it's subject (Chinese star Ruan Ling-yu, who became one of the most famous actresses of Shanghai cinema during the 1930s before she tragically committed suicide at the age of 25), with recreated scenes of her films and her life, as well as interviews with director Stanley Kwan, his crew, and star Maggie Cheung (who open the film by asking: "Isn't she just a replica of me?"). As Ling-yu, Maggie Cheung is a dream. She gives one of the cinemas most remarkably beautiful and complex performances. She flawlessly captures the hidden sadness and complexity of this character in a way that is (like it's star) graceful, classy, glamorous. The narrative is non-linear in time and flashes back and forth throughout Ling-yu's career, life and death, but the primary focus is the years leading towards her suicide. The film essentially stands as both a tribute to Ling-yu and as a reflection on her life and influence. By expressing multiple feelings and points of view, this biography film becomes more an ambitious reflection of Ling-yu. By recreating period details, the film becomes a mysterious and curious exploration into the past through the present. Kwan's film delves into philosophical depths and unanswerable questions that leave a though-provoking impact. Center Stage is a dazzling film. A remarkable cinematic achievement that is a homage to 1930s Shanghai cinema, and to Ruan Ling-yu. Quite simply a masterpiece on every level of filmmaking!

The Filmmaker

Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan's first international acclaim came with the Jackie Chan produced 1987 film Rouge starring Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui. Unfortunately to date I have only seen two of Kwans films including his 1992 masterpiece Center Stage- one of my alltime favorites. Of what I've seen the one quality that stands out to me is the complexity of the performances and the eloquent detail of the Atmosphere, which leaves an intimate or even romantic sense of feeling. One description that seems fitting for Kwan as a filmmaker is that he has a graceful touch. It is easy to admire his films on a variety of levels and hopefully I will soon be able to see more of his work in the very near future.

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Resources
trailer (youtube)      
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