Stanley Kwan’s 1991 masterpiece (also known as Ruan Ling-yu and Center Stage) is still the greatest Hong Kong film I’ve seen, though shortening the original running time of 146 minutes by around half an hour has been harmful. (Adding insult to injury, the Hong Kong producers have destroyed the original negative; apparently the uncut version survives only on Australian TV.) The story of silent film actress Ruan Ling-yu (1910-’35), known as the Garbo of Chinese cinema, it combines documentary with period re-creation, biopic glamour with profound curiosity, and ravishing historical clips with color simulations of the same sequences being shotall to explore a past that seems more complex, sexy, and mysterious than the present. Maggie Cheung won a well-deserved best actress prize at Berlin for her classy performance in the title role, and much of Kwan’s work as a director goes into creating a kind of nimbus around her poise and grace. (George Cukor comes to mind as a Hollywood equivalent.) Kwan also creates a labyrinth of questions around who Ruan was and why she committed suicidea labyrinth both physical (with beautifully ambiguous uses of black-and-white movie sets) and metaphysical. Highlights include the stylish beauty of an imagined Shanghai film world of the 30s and the flat abrasiveness of Kwan chatting with Cheung on video about what all this means and coming up with damn little. Any historical movie worth its salt historicizes the present along with the past, and this movie implicitly juxtaposes our own inadequacy with those potent clips of Ling-yu herself. In Cantonese with subtitles. (JR)

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