Centre Stage (Kwan, 1992)
These brief comments were written like, a year ago… but I’m posting them to preserve them just in case I ever forget why I love the film.
Terrific film, completely unlike anything I expected – I thought it’d follow a traditional biopic formula but instead it merged real-life interviews with cast members with the dramatisation of Rian Lingyu’s life with stock footage of her actual films. Wtf?! Loved it. The result was a multi-dimensional perspective on its subject that constantly reminds us that it’s just that – an interpretation of Rian Lingyu’s life. At film’s end, what surprised me most was just how little I actually knew about the protagonist’s thoughts and motivations.
I’ve recently been reading about the Nanjing Decade in Chinese history, and I really appreciated the various insights that the film offered re: the tension between East/West (not only by taking place in Shanghai and the film industry setting, but also through its ‘fast-forwards’ to the 1990s), as well as the Japanese threat and the fragility of the patriarchal order that entrapped Rian. In its own way, its also as strong an indictment of the media and “malicious gossip” as anything I’ve seen, but its sympathetic at the same time?! I’m thinking particularly of the scene where the ‘ordinary’ women accuse Ruan’s mother of being the basis for The Goddess: by establishing the political/social context of the era, Kwan seems to suggest an inherent need to think of something else in order to avoid the harsh reality of their situation. On top of all that there’s the comments on the nature of stars, acting, film-making etc. So much going on!
Anyway, I could think about this all day but I’ve gotta run. Must quickly praise Maggie Cheung’s exceptional performance before I do – the film is probably accomplished enough to achieve its commentary should another actress have filled her shoes, but Maggie’s quiet tour-de-force (I don’t exaggerate) is the reason I care for this film on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one. She’s asked to play herself, Rian Lingyu as well as Rian Lingyu playing other characters and all the while she’s forced to compete with the memory of the star that preceded her – and she sometimes does all that in the same scene. The woman excels and proves that she’s up there with the best of ‘em for sure.