Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan’s “Center Stage” has made its way to its first US release 30 years after it was made. While a film this good deserved a worldwide audience back in 1991, it is oddly fitting that this turbulent reflection on memory and moviemaking, which looked back to the silent era, has already gone through its own restoration. Although “Center Stage” is circulated in three different cuts, the Metrograph is showing the longest version. Beginning as a documentary about the Chinese movie star Ruan Lingyu (Maggie Cheung), it reconstructs the films she made in the 1930s, some of which have now been lost, and imagines her life as a melodrama.
The reflexive touches of “Center Stage” are never intended to detract from the story’s emotional pull. Indeed, the fictional narrative of Ruan’s life makes the scenes of Kwan and Cheung (who later became famous outside Asia for playing herself in Olivier Assayas’ far more meta “Irma Vep”) speculating about her seem rather pale. But the film has a specific interpretation. As it tells her story, she was initially known for playing victimized women, especially sex workers. She sought out roles that offered a more modern view of women’s options, appearing in the 1935 film “New Woman.” But in life, her choices were constricted by her celebrity status and a tabloid press which followed her every move, especially when she became part of a love triangle with a married director.
Kwan uses several distinct styles for the film’s disparate parts. The present-day scenes, in which he, Cheung and actor Carina Lau speculate about Ruan’s life and he interviews colleagues of hers, are shot in grainy black-and-white. When Ruan is depicted in a film-within-the-film, she’s usually coated in waxy, pale makeup. The scenes showing her actual life show Kwan’s full flare for melodrama, with equally potent use of gorgeous colors and a lively soundtrack. But “Center Stage” does not always keep these three sections separate. In one scene, an actor playing the director Fei Mu — whose 1948 “Springtime in a Small Town” is widely considered one of the best Chinese films ever made — gives a monologue in character, dressed in a three-piece suit. But the camera drifts over to show two women assisting Cheung with her costume as she falls into bed, playing Ruan. It then returns back to the original actor.
Kwan’s initial breakthrough, “Rouge,” hinted at a similar interpenetration of the past and present. It was a ghost story in which a woman returned to the Hong Kong of 1987. The director subsequently came out as gay in his 1996 documentary “Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema.” Produced by the British Film Institute as part of a worldwide series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the movies’ invention, it chose the angle of exploring the history of queerness in Chinese cinema. He went on to film the gay love story “Lan Yu,” based on a novel posted anonymously on the Internet, in Beijing without the mainland Chinese government’s permission or approval. But none of his subsequent work has matched the ambition or impact of “Center Stage,” and he hasn’t made a feature since 2010.
Whatever Kwan meant to suggest, the urgency and intensity of feeling in the past shames the present. But we’re now looking at “Center Stage” in the rear mirror. A film haunted by the Chinese cinema of the ‘30s is now one of the great films of the Hong Kong New Wave of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. This period ended due both to the handover of the island, colonized by the British, to mainland China in 1997 — which would eventually lead to increased censorship and endless bland co-productions aimed at mainland audiences — and its own commercial success around the world, as Hollywood came calling for John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and “Center Stage” producer Jackie Chan. But Kwan was one of the few Hong Kong directors of this period who specialized in art films, but did not gain the worldwide attention that Wong Kar-wai did.
Mainland China has been busy trying to destroy the possibility of a Hong Kong culture separate from it. However, the narrative of Ruan’s life resonates with present-day American culture. The media spent recent weeks going through a reckoning with the way it treated Britney Spears, Janet Jackson and other female celebrities as walking punchlines or symptoms of social problems instead of vulnerable individuals who could be personally hurt by their coverage. The final third of “Center Stage,” in which Ruan says “death means nothing to me, but I’m still afraid of malicious gossip,” feels awfully familiar.
“Center Stage” | Directed by Stanley Kwan | Film Movement Classics | In Cantonese, Shanghainese and Mandarin with English subtitles | Starts streaming March 12th through the Metrograph