Hollywood is better known for real-life stories of young stars cut down in their prime, but the rise and fall of Chinese film actress Ruan Ling-Yu is proof positive that these tragic tales can occur just about anywhere in the world. At twenty-four, this silent screen star took her life amidst scandal, effectively cementing herself as a cinema legend much like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Bruce Lee. Apparently, where there's celebrity there's also the so-called “price of fame.” One would presume that Stanley Kwan’s biopic Centre Stage would attempt to help viewers understand why someone so young and so talented would cut her life so short. But oddly enough, despite intensive research on the part of the director, the answer to that question seems opaque, if not downright elusive.
Rather than cover the entirety of her life, Centre Stage focuses on Ruan Ling-Yu’s ascendency to superstar levels at Shanghai Lianhua Studio. There, she works with such actresses as Lily Li (Carina Lau) and Lam Cho-Cho (Cecilia Yip), as the audience we get some sense of her development as an actress, as well as her growing creative input with directors during the shooting of her many films. Her private life finds her initially attached to n’er-do-well Cheung Tat-Man (Lawrence Ng), before she later hooks up with the very rich, but also very married Tong Kuai-San (Chin Han). This initially unproblematic love triangle proves to be far more disastrous than Ruan expects, as news leaks out of her “affair,” creating a scandal of epic proportions. Hounded by Shanghai’s proto-paparazzi, Ruan takes her own life. Cue credits.
I'm not writing these last few sentences to spoil the movie (Besides, you can’t really spoil something that’s a matter of public record), but instead to point out that the facts, as presented above, are not really fleshed out in the actual film, despite the director’s cut running more than two-and-a-half hours. Centre Stage is somewhat of an unwieldy beast to begin with. Rather than go with a straightforward biography, Kwan chooses to interrupt his narrative at random intervals with black-and-white footage of himself, as he interviews the biographer of Ruan Ling-Yu, her former colleagues, and even his own actors. In the case of the latter, his discussions with Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Lawrence Ng, and others seems to hinge on the possible motivations of each of their characters.
Initially, this device is amusing and sometimes complementary, but as the film wears on, it soon becomes redundant, uninformative, or simply misplaced. This is no more apparent than during the finale, in which Kwan decides to intercut footage of how he filmed the funeral scenes, which shows bloopers as well as a living, breathing Maggie Cheung in the background, while another actor attempts his own on-camera, super-serious monologue. If this was a film about artifice of cinema, then the device would be more effective, but in the context of Centre Stage, the footage only serves to undercut the narrative’s dramatic arc and make Ruan Ling-Yu’s death come across as one big meta-joke.
It also doesn’t help that Kwan intercuts footage from the few Ruan Ling-Yu films in existence. From a documentary point of view, these rare films are interesting to see, but their inclusion also breaks down whatever “reality” the film successfully creates up until that point, as Ruan Ling-Yu looks nothing like Maggie Cheung. In fact, she more closely resembles Cheung's co-star Carina Lau. It’s possible that Kwan meant to deconstruct the biopic as a genre through these techniques, but unfortunately, they only seem to undermine the film proper.
For her efforts, Maggie Cheung took home the Best Actress prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Considering her competition that year, the prize was well-deserved. Centre Stage is, after all, a “serious film,” and Cheung gives a fine performance. The problem, however, is that she doesn’t have much to work with character-wise. We don’t get much of a sense of what’s going on with Ruan on the inside; for the most part, she’s somewhat of a blank.
Cheung’s character only seems to really come alive in the last half-hour, due in large part to the scandal, as well as her interactions with Tony Leung Ka-Fai’s character, the passionate film director Tsai Chu-Sheng. Who is Ruan Ling-Yu? What are her hopes? Her dreams? Her likes? Her dislikes? For the most part, Ruan Ling-Yu is just a cipher. Again, that was perhaps by design – but to what purpose? If the film had chosen to focus on the ups and downs of her pre-cinematic youth (which includes her alleged rape by the son of her mother’s employer), we would have a better sense of her psychology and see her more as a woman and less as a star.
The way in which characters interact with not only each other but with the outside world is probably the film’s biggest problem. Since the scenes with Ruan Ling-Yu are limited mostly to life at the studio and life at home, there’s no sense of how big of a celebrity she is, save for the later scenes in which the press start sniffing around her home. Further, the love triangle with Cheung Tat-Man and Tong Kuai-San relies more on “telling” than “showing,” and what we’re told isn’t much.
Probably the strangest moment is when the film speculates that Ruan Ling-Yu and Tsai Chu-Sheng have been carrying on an affair in secret (even from the audience!). This supposed relationship isn’t totally out of the question (he has, after all, been her friend and confidant), but the fact that the filmmakers chose to allege an affair at the last second, instead of letting the two best actors in the film actually dramatize this for the audience is a puzzling choice to say the least. Were the filmmakers afraid to speculate too much about their characters’ love lives for fear of a lawsuit? Whatever the reason, it ultimately does a disservice to the narrative. For a woman who was supposedly involved in several affairs, Ruan Ling-Yu’s relationships seem passionless, if not nonexistent.
Still, with wonderful production values, eye-catching period costumes, its “serious” subject matter, and a talented cast of actors, it’s no wonder that Centre Stage was not only nominated for a number of prizes at the 12th Annual Hong Kong Film Awards, but also took home a few. However, in hindsight, Centre Stage is both a failed biopic and a failed documentary – beautiful to look at, but ultimately quite hollow. (Calvin McMillin 2009)