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Centre stage: reconstructing the bio-pic.

AS HONG KONG PREPARES TO BECOME A SPECIAL Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, the city's filmmakers struggle to define and preserve its cultural identity. In the run-up to 1997, this historical project has tended to focus around two areas of concern, namely the search to establish forms of localized subjectivity and the desire to explore issues of space and mobility. Ackbar Abbas, who has written one of the best general accounts of contemporary Hong Kong cinema, (1) claims that such concerns are "exemplified most outstandingly" (68) in Stanley Kwan's Rouge (1987) and Centre Stage (a.k.a. Ruan Lingyu, or Actress, 1991). As well as offering unique conceptualizations of space and subjectivity, these two titles have done much to secure Kwan's reputation as one of the true auteurs of Hong Kong cinema.

Both Rouge, which has already been the subject of an impressive amount of English-language criticism, (2) and Centre Stage present their meditations on such themes dialectically, through the utilization of a multiple diegesis, or what Abbas calls a "double temporal framework" (75). Rouge, a ghost melodrama, moves back and forth between an opulently recreated 1930s Hong Kong and a deliberately dank and lifeless 1980s, while the latter film utilizes multiple diegeses as it oscillates between 1990s Hong Kong and 1930s Shanghai. In each case, narrative complexities establish links between Hong Kong's past, present, and future.

Centre Stage is ostensibly a bio-pic about the great Chinese film star Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935). However, it is formally and thematically so complex a Brechtian example of metacinema that it constitutes a radical reworking of both genre and subject matter. The film mixes beautifully shot period reconstructions of Ruan's life and work with contemporary interviews with the Hong Kong stars who act out the reconstructions. In turn, these diegetic layers are then edited together with actual footage of Ruan's surviving films and present-day interviews with her colleagues from the Shanghai film industry. The result, as in a cubist montage or Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), is a kaleidoscopic narrative articulation. No single piece of information is presented from any one point of view, although the various accounts all come together to form a completely sympathetic testimonial.

Resisting the temptation to recount incidents from Ruan's entire life, Centre Stage focuses on her public and private affairs in the years immediately leading up to her premature death. With the black-and-white footage of the Hong Kong production crew acting as a framing device, we see this lady from Shanghai negotiate various emotional and professional demands. Ruan Lingyu/Maggie Cheung rehearses and films with a number of directors, giving famous performances for Sun Yu (Wild Flower, 1930), Wu Yonggang (The Goddess, 1934), and Cai Chusheng (New Woman, 1934). However, just as the Japanese invasion of China disrupts her work at Lianhua Studios, Ruan experiences behind-the-scenes problems with her estranged husband, Tang Shi-chan/Lawrence Ng. And after the Shanghai press gets its teeth into her adulterous affair with Chang Ta-min/Ch'in Han, she becomes distanced from him as well. Subject to numerous torments and public humiliations, Ruan Lingyu commits suicide in 1935, proclaiming, in the note left lying by her side, that "gossip is a fearful thing".

According to Centre Stage, the tragedy of Ruan's life resonates on a number of different levels. In this article, I would like to suggest how the film's fundamental reconstruction of the bio-pic is perfectly in keeping with the search to establish localized forms of Hong Kong space and subjectivity. The utilization of multiple diegeses necessitates a reading of the connections between Hong Kong's colonial past and its "post-colonial" future. This is a strategy which is familiar from some of Kwan's earlier work.

To give one example, Ackbar Abbas points out that when Fleur/Anita Mui, the ghostly 1930s courtesan from Rouge, sets out to find her old flame in the historical present, her pale demeanor prompts one character to describe her as "unchanged for fifty years", thus ironically referring to the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Future of Hong Kong, which decrees that after 1997 the settlement shall remain unchanged for half a century under China's reconstructed policy of "one country, two systems" (75). In a similar fashion, Centre Stage opens with a short interview scene between Stanley Kwan and the actress who impersonates Ruan Lingyu, Maggie Cheung, wherein Kwan asks Cheung whether she would "like to be remembered fifty years from now". While the question introduces themes of stardom and idolatry that will be returned to time and again, it also makes the political point by reinforcing a sense of historical perspective and urgency. As in countless other movies made since the post-1979 Hong Kong `New Wave', those directed by Stanley Kwan collapse text and subtext into one.

My reading of how Centre Stage breaks the generic constraints of the bio-pic is premised upon a rudimentary analysis of its high style. In virtually every scene, Kwan's aesthetic impulse favors opulent production design over humdrum realism, which can be seen as one strategy for preserving the memory of Hong Kong: as the city disappears from view, its cinematic afterimage shines through the dark. Center Stage is the fifth of Stanley Kwan's six feature films to date, and in line with most of his other work it embodies a distinctly melodramatic imagination (it is telling that he is most often compared to another gay director of "women's pictures", George Cukor). However, unlike three of his earlier titles--the generally neglected Women (1985), Love Unto Waste (1986), and Full Moon in New York (1990)--Centre Stage has succeeded in restoring high style to the prominent position it used to occupy on the international film festival circuit.

The film has ridden the crest of two waves, benefiting both from a widespread foreign interest in Rouge, and from the recent global fascination with contemporary Chinese cinema. After its initial success at the 1992 Hong Kong Film Awards, the film travelled to many overseas exhibition sites. In Berlin (where it was projected in the 167 minute version that is the subject of this article, rather than the two hour cut unspooled for domestic release), Maggie Cheung picked up a Silver Bear for her work on the film, the first such prize ever awarded to a Chinese actress. Undoubtedly, this recognition generated interest in Kwan's next film, Red Rose White Rose (1995), and enabled him to receive further commissions--Yang Yin, a personal account of gender in pan-Chinese cinema, was financed by the British Film Institute and premiered a few months ago. Now, amid growing incomprehension over why Kwan's films are not in North American circulation,(3) Centre Stage and Rouge are available in a package of nine contemporary Hong Kong movies distributed by the Minneapolis-based non-profit organization, Asian Media Access.


By a pleasant historical accident, Center Stage was making the rounds of the international film festival circuit at the very moment the bio-pic itself was receiving sustained critical attention via the publication of George F. Custen's invaluable book on the subject.(4) Custen's work provides the definitive analysis of how Hollywood constructs public history, and while it sidesteps other national cinemas and refuses to imagine what a radical deconstruction of the genre might look like, Centre Stage provides its audio-visual afterword.(5)

In order to appreciate how Center Stage reconstructs the bio-pic as a means of raising questions about space and subjectivity in contemporary Hong Kong, it is clearly necessary to indicate what the broad rules of its generic model are. Here, then, is an extremely brief summary of some of the main points of Custen's book as they relate to Kwan's film.

Firstly, conventional bio-pics need to be understandable to audiences in thematic, narrative and formal terms. There is often, for example, a "double level of the articulation of fame" (34) wherein the intertextuality of star images is manipulated so as to anchor an existing set of signifiers around the image of the historical figure being impersonated --"in this light, perhaps one admires Queen Elizabeth I for her statecraft but also because she is Bette Davis" (34). More than that, star actors are likely to offer performative readings of only a limited number of social types drawn from a very small occupational pool, with politicians, sports heroes, and entertainers being the most favored. To play up the ordinary/extraordinary dichotomy that underpins the whole star phenomenon, this assortment of the great and the good is then "normalized" through the visualization of family and heterosexual love relationships. By such means, distinguished public careers led by distinct individuals can be safely inserted within dominant ideological norms and life stories narrated in conventional linear fashion.

Custen also suggests that the genre has a certain modular quality, in that the historical subjects blessed with the big screen treatment very often act the part of allegorical substitutes for Hollywood production personnel. When the lives of artists and entertainers are re-enacted--The Glenn Miller Story (Anthony Mann, 1954), say, or Sweet Dreams (1985), Karel Reisz's excellent film about Patsy Cline--they function as self-reflexive celebrations of the movie industry itself. Affirming the very values of entertainment and show-biz that produced them, such films embody the life experiences of studio heads. At least in the classical Hollywood period, narratives revolve around self-made individuals who re-invent themselves as public show people through a combination of hard work, talent, and luck. To emphasize this struggle and self-affirmation, bio-pics often feature trial scenes that set the extraordinary individual off from his or her peers. In staging such public vindications, narratives can insert morality lessons in at appropriate moments.

Finally, bio-pics are formally set up in generally conservative ways, with opening title cards that establish the terms on which the depicted public life will be understood, and an initial promise that what the viewer is about to see and hear is "authentic", or "the truth". Yet narrative information in the genre is usually framed and presented from fixed and hierarchical points of view; we always already know how these stories about famous people are going to turn out. In most cases, all of this adds up to a bio-pic that will conform to a conservative realist aesthetic, that does not make dialectical connections between different historical times, and that refuses to interrogate the very process of constructing public history it contributes to.


On these terms, Centre Stage is clearly a revisionist bio-pic. Yet while critics have been quick to note its Brechtian distanciation techniques, most have been slow to account for how these actually work on both textual and contextual levels. The film does not so much establish an alternative generic type as subvert its forms from within. One could say that any narrative about a famous actress is going to be generically normative in that it uses the figure of an entertainer to conceptualize public life. However, Centre Stage dramatizes the production, circulation, and consumption of popular cinematic memory so as to contribute in more vital ways to Hong Kong's mass cultural conversation about itself.

While treating broadly familiar subject matter, Centre Stage expands the terms of the show-biz bio-pic by mobilizing a range of opinions and voices. The story of Ruan Lingyu is placed within a dual historical context that opens up rather than closes down historical understanding. In rejecting a strict linear plotline, the film seeks out alternative tales of identity and mobility. At the same time, by presenting multiple view-points on how a public image gets constructed, the film encourages a dialectical reading of its themes. While one woman's life is remembered and celebrated, agency is conceptualized as a social rather than purely an individual force. (6)

Given Hong Kong's current historical situation, such an ambitious rewriting of the bio-pic makes aesthetic sense. The ideology subscribed to by Hollywood producers--namely, that famous personages should be given clear motivation and character development, their stories told within the frame of a "rooting interest" that audiences understand--appears less tenable when viewed in the context of the inevitability of 1997. Instead of featuring men and women who struggle to command their own lives, a number of contemporary bio-pics from Hong Kong portray the great and the good trying, but failing, to take hold of a situation that is beyond their control. (7)

Centre Stage's construction of a multiple temporal framework is especially important to the success of this project because of the very nature of the historical material under investigation. Kwan's film remains true to the spirit of the bio-pic because it focuses on the public image of a person who remains inaccessible to us. (At the time of production, only six of Ruan's films were known to be in existence and so available for research). For this reason, a large part of her story has had to be reconstructed out of lost objects, fragmented memories, and creative interpretations. Instead of buying into a realist aesthetic that claims to be "true" and "authentic", the film illustrates, in George F. Custen's words, that all history "is a mediation, a set of discursive practices encoded in a time and often a place removed from their actual occurrence, and thus subject to some degree of restructuring" (11).

This act of restructuring constitutes the film's raison d'etre. The imminent eradication of Hong Kong's current situation has made the process of memory retention extremely important, and the ability to explore lives in all of their historical complexity provides one means of preservation. After 1997, for example, Mandarin is almost certain to replace English and Cantonese as the city's official language. Accordingly, the main characters in Centre Stage speak in a diversity of idioms, articulating hybrid identities through holding conversations in Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and English.

By such means, the film's comparison of two cosmopolitan Chinese cities in historical time is presented through a deeply ambivalent form of nostalgia. As in Rouge, there is the suggestion that the past is more attractive, intense, and memorable than the present. Yet it is a deliberately selective and `unofficial' past. Centre Stage depicts the internationalism of 1930s Shanghai and 1990s Hong Kong so as to resist the unifying tendencies of Communist ideology. As Prasenjit Duara has demonstrated, the very act of writing historical narratives about the Chinese nation is fraught with difficulty. How can the diverse fragments of that huge imagined community be brought together as one? (8) In line with a number of other recent films from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland, Centre Stage rewrites the `official' version of past events by ignoring the partiality of state-directed narratives. If the opulent color schemes, production designs, and big-band music of the scenes set in the 1930s recall that particular decade with immense affection, the memory of post-liberation Maoism is sidestepped as Kwan and his colleagues claim allegiance with the pre-1949 leftist Chinese cinema. (9)

When, in the first scene, the director asks Maggie Cheung if she would like to be remembered fifty years from now, he does so while the two of them are looking at stills from movies Ruan Lingyu acted in during the 1930s, the great period of what Chris Berry terms "post-colonial" Chinese filmmaking. Cheung throws back her head and laughs, exclaiming of Ruan, "Isn't she a replica of myself?" On those words, the generic rule that bio-pic subjects should be treated as unique individuals is exposed as a fiction. Instead, the film goes on to show how Ruan Lingyu, Maggie Cheung, and a range of other individuals located in different but related times and places, lead somewhat parallel lives. Such loose connections will be explored throughout the entire film.

The result of all this revisionism is that our position of knowledge as spectators is co-opted. Since Centre Stage refuses to open with a title card proclaiming its "truthfulness", since it offers instead an interview scene between production personnel, we know right from the start that we are viewing a fictional reworking of Ruan's life. The opening scene establishes that the film's subject isn't going to be offered to us fully formed, but instead is constantly reinterpreted in the light of historical events that happened subsequent to her death. Even before we are given any of the beautifully shot dramatic reconstructions, then, we know that the reality-status of the information presented to us has been compromised.

It is significant that the contemporary black-and-white interview scenes are among the most Brechtian in the entire film. When Kwan talks with Cheung or Lawrence Ng, with Carina Lau (who plays the 1930s star Li Lili), or Tony Leung (as Cai Chusheng), the conversations are shot in an extremely flat manner. As the camera slowly pans between the actors, the backs of their heads, and the entire cinematic apparatus itself are visible in a large mirror situated behind them. Such a cold and formal documentary aesthetic contrasts starkly with the graceful tracking shots and elaborate lighting designs of the period reconstructions. And while the interview scenes tend not to actually question how suitable these modern Hong Kong actors are as impersonators of silent film stars, they do carry an implicit critique of performance. As Centre Stage is everywhere else so careful about how it presents its reconstructions, can there be any guarantee that the interviews themselves have not been staged with great care and forethought? Are they really as spontaneous as they seem?

To give some idea of how subtle and far-reaching these kinds of diegetic transformations are, I should describe Kwan's high style in more specific detail. Centre Stage as a whole is extremely difficult to segment - its mix of baffling scene transitions, flashforwards, and non-simultaneous voice-overs would make even Christian Metz spit in impotent rage--but one relatively autonomous segment that I would like to concentrate on is based around the filming of New Woman at Lianhua Studios.

This sequence captures both the shooting of a scene from Cai Chusheng's 1934 classic and the simultaneous filming of the reconstruction by the 1990s Hong Kong production team. It moves from the full-colored reconstruction of the past to a black and white depiction of the present. It opens in the 1934 diegesis, as Cai tells Ruan Lingyu how he would like her to act out a death-bed scene--even in your last moments you want to live, he explains, and I shall print bold title cards over your tragic face to make the point. The resulting take is a success: Ruan's character struggles, collapses in a hospital bed, and is mourned by family and friends. Cai wraps things up with a smile. However, after the director has shouted "Cut!", Ruan continues to weep softly under the white sheets (one of many images throughout the film which conflate her on and off-screen lives), while melancholic music plays on the soundtrack. As a lateral track traverses the length of the bed, the image shifts from deep browns and blues to sepia. Via a characteristically elegant crane shot that pulls back to a high angle view of the Hong Kong crew filming the scene, we hear Kwan's soft voice calling "Cut!", then giving further instructions to his team ("you forgot to lift up the bedsheet to see Maggie"). After a reverse shot gives us what appears to be a black and white still image of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung acting in character, seated on the hospital bed with a camera behind them, there is a cut to footage of the real Ruan Lingyu death scene from New Woman, complete with the dramatic title cards that Cai Chusheng/Leung has already referred to. The camera pulls back once again to reveal this footage as itself part of a dramatic reconstruction, as we find ourselves in a 1930s screening room, where the movie is being run for a group of belligerent journalists. At this point, the image has returned to full color, and we are ready to move on to the next stage of the narrative.


With its deep colors and graceful camera movements, its concentration on emotional nuance and musical delicacy, this scene provides a textbook example of Stanley Kwan's high style. But it also provides a good indication of the film's overall preoccupation with the relationships that can be established between male director and female star. As Berenice Reynaud points out, (10) Kwan has given a number of top Chinese actresses some of their most fulfilling roles (it could also be pointed out that he has done the same for a few leading men: Tony Leung and Chow Yun-Fat in Love Unto Waste and Leslie Cheung in Rouge, for example, are outstanding). The numerous references throughout Centre Stage to Marlene Dietrich's performance in The Blue Angel (1930) are enough to indicate the presence of a von-Sternberg-like empathy and fascination with the central female performer.

To be more precise, Ruan's relationships with her various directors provides a parallel commentary on, and a range of alternatives to, the private relationships that were to ruin her life. The "trouble" with Ruan Lingyu in the context of the Republican Shanghai cinema can be taken to be one of consistency--in the 1930s, the on-and off-screen lives of female stars had to be consistent, and hers wasn't. The first reconstruction in Centre Stage takes place in a massage parlor, where a group of male Lianhua directors discuss the various possibilities offered by Ruan's star image. By the end of the film, we discover that even though that image could be stretched in a number of different directions, it snapped when the press found out that the woman herself was having an extra-marital affair. In Kwan's version of her life, the relationships Ruan forms with her directors and lovers act out variations on a theme, while her film work provides a creative space for the exploration of feelings that are denied off-screen expression.

Tony Rayns has rightly suggested that nothing is more touching in Centre Stage than the film's "respect and affection for the late Fei Mu, reviled by the Communists as a `Rightist', but surely one of the great directors of his time". (11) Noted for such superb dramas as Spring In A Small Town (1948), Fei Mu is here resurrected as a sympathetic man with an egalitarian and progressive attitude who understands Ruan's yearning emotionality. Indeed, it is Fei who provides the most moving testimony to the actress during the long funeral sequence that ends the film.

In this scene, as Ruan/Cheung's body is laid out in an open casket, a number of directors reminisce about her life and work. Fei's point of view is privileged, however, because he is allowed to deliver an extended monologue straight to the camera, thus breaking the illusionary nature of the bio-pic a little more. It is here that the film's utlization of a `double temporal framework' becomes most complicated. At this moment both the 1930s and the 1990s, both the reconstructions and the contemporary footage, exist as one. For the first time, the two diegetic levels are shot in sumptuous color, which means that as Fei delivers his speech ("When she got half-drunk, she'd ask her friends: `Can I be considered good?' ") his words have to compete with a visual commentary on his performance--after a few seconds, a slight camera pan away from his face reveals the presence of two make-up artists working away on the "dead" Ruan Lingyu/Maggie Cheung behind him.

The final scene of the movie, then, presents a reconstruction of Ruan's funeral together with a documentary on the shooting of the scene itself by Kwan's cast and crew. (Some shots are accompanied by offscreen commands for the actors who are gathered around the death-bed to "be serious"). Yet even at this consummately Brechtian moment, the narrative still offers the kinds of satisfying pieces of dramatic closure that would round-up a more conventional bio-pic. We are given access to at least one moment that has already been referred to in the interviews but which we have not seen acted out before. Earlier on, the elderly Li Lili had recounted, in a 1991 talk with Kwan and Cheung, that she never cried at Ruan's funeral: now, the reconstruction gives us Carina Lau/Li refusing to cry. By such means, the end of Centre Stage fills in its narrative gaps at the very moment the reconstructions are explicitly shown to be manufactured out of contemporary private fantasies.

Or, again, consider how shots of Maggie Cheung lying in her open casket are edited next to shots of the filming of that same scene (Kwan needs another take because Cheung is visibly breathing). In its very last seconds, the whole funeral scene is put into dialectical tension when a black-and-white photo of the real Ruan on her actual death-bed is run behind the final credits. (12) However, even this cannot be taken as a simply "authentic" moment, for it is accompanied by Siu Chung's wonderful theme song, which has appeared in various arrangements throughout the narrative. Earlier in the funeral scene it has echoed around the studio in a contemporary pop version, but now it is presented differently, revealed, irresistibly, as a fake reconstruction of a 1930s recording.

Such use of "authentic" inserts from Ruan's life and films are willfully fetishistic. In general, the most breathtaking moments in Centre Stage occur when actual footage of Ruan Lingyu herself is placed within the narrative flow. Aside from allowing the viewer to appreciate her skill and charisma, the recontextualisation of her original performances within a contemporary high style aesthetic adds to the intrigue of the 1930s footage. While the fetishistic "aura" of these few frames of film is enhanced, the feeling is also created that the reconstructions must stand in lieu of the lost films. And, in turn, the absence of the lost films provides a space within which new ideas about contemporary Hong Kong subjectivity can be inserted.

There is a scene very early on in the film, for example, when Ruan walks out of her house and lies down in the snow outside. At first the viewer is not quite sure what is going on. Is she rehearsing? Is she acting for a hidden camera? Is she emoting in private? The following shot, however, answers our questions by showing us her perform the same actions in a film that a title card informs us is no longer in existence. By such means, our previous speculations about Ruan's behavior are validated as legitimate even while we are given an "impossible" aesthetic reconstruction. Similarly, when Cai Chushang/Leung looks at the censored death-bed scene from New Woman I described above, he holds the film strip up to the light and an inserted close-up reveals a black-and-white image of Maggie Cheung's, not Ruan Lingyu's, face. As the original is gone forever, a new source must take its place.

It is no accident that in Centre Stage the fetishistic concentration on the "aura" of the lost object is provided by the image of a dead woman, because dead women haunt Kwan's films (cf. the ghostly courtesan from Rouge, the murdered actress in Love Unto Waste). However, it is here that one possible criticism of the film arises. Despite Maggie Cheung's success at the Hong Kong Film Awards and at the Berlin Film Festival, domestic and international critics seem to be pretty much divided on whether or not she gives a successful interpretation of Ruan Lingyu. Berenice Reynaud suggests that Cheung's beauty and talent have not yet translated into a secure Western reputation because her image goes against our Orientalist fantasies of Chinese women. Female Chinese stars should suffer beautifully (Gong Li, Ruan Lingyu) but Cheung's star image still circulates as that of the good-time, modern Hong Kong girl (cf. she has been seen most recently by North American audiences as Jackie Chan's girlfriend in Stanley Tong's 1992 comedy Supercop: Police Story 3). While it is certainly true that the bulk of Cheung's output is located within the popular fantasy/action/comedy veins--witness her performances in such diverse films as Iceman Cometh (Fok Yiu Leung, 1989), The Heroic Trio (Ching Siu-tung/Johnny To, 1992), and A Fishy Story (Anthony Chan, 1991)--her most spectacular successes have been in dramatic roles. With Centre Stage and Full Moon in New York, Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild (1990) and Ashes of Time (1994), Yim Ho's melodrama Red Dust (1990) and Ann Hui's Song of the Exile (1991), Cheung has propelled herself into the ranks of serious dramatic actresses.

Without ever wishing to deny my own love and admiration for Maggie Cheung's work, I should acknowledge that I find her performance in Centre Stage something of a problem. While her acting often has an appealing camp or ironic quality, her performance as Ruan Lingyu does not offer the principles of estrangement that Brecht sought from his actors--which is to say that while Kwan's mix of high style and black-and-white documentary aesthetics achieves an alienation effect, the central performance itself does not separate the actress out from the role she plays. There is a tension in the film between the ostensible naturalism of Cheung's performance and the revisionist principles of the auteur's style. If one adds to this the fact that, as far as I am aware, Cheung's own off-screen image does not resonate with the same kinds of scandalous and tragic associations that Ruan Lingyu embodies, the result is a rupture, a lack of fit between star image and role.

When Maggie Cheung throws back her head and laughs that Ruan Lingyu is a "replica of myself", I'm not completely convinced. Like the modern, cynical woman, played by Emily Chu, from 1980s Hong Kong in Rouge who envies Fleur her romantic passion, one cannot quite imagine Maggie Cheung killing herself for love. Perhaps this is part of the point of Kwan's film, but I can't help feeling that it's a shame the director's first choice for the part, Anita Mui, was not available. To me, apart from bearing an uncanny similarity to photographs of Ruan Lingyu circa-New Woman, it more tellingly suggests the kind of Brechtian separation of actor and role that the performance in Centre Stage demands. Aside from the fact that Mui's performances habitually embody a greater self-reflexivity than Cheung's, there is also a greater fit, in both her on and off-screen images, with the politics of scandal and tragedy. In the early 1990s, for example, Anita Mui had to be placed under a police witness protection scheme after she testified against some triad members who murdered one of her producers in a hospital bed. In 1994 she was denied immigration papers to Canada. All of this contributes to the feeling that Mui's mix of erotic danger and world-weary tragedy better suggests Ruan Lingyu than Maggie Cheung's good time girl. And whereas Cheung generally doesn't die in her films, Anita Mui suffers and dies extremely well (cf. Rouge, A Better Tomorrow 3 [a.k.a. Love and Death in Saigon, Tsui Hark, 1989], The Last Princess of Manchuria).


No matter who performs the role, though, Stanley Kwan's high style would not be for everyone. Like Wong Kar-wai, whose work he admires and supports, Kwan is sometimes perceived as being too opulent and melodramatic, too mannered--all those deep colors and crane shots are seen as distracting, an indication of flash not substance. If the reception of other contemporary Hong Kong movies is anything to go by, it would seem to be the case that the majority of international audiences still prefer strong linear plot lines to the kind of emotional, symbolic and associational narrative links that are developed in Centre Stage. On the other hand, both Kwan and Wong Kar-wai have their share of admirers, and I am certainly not alone in feeling that their charming, fragmented tales of lost love and confused souls perfectly encapsulate the mood of fin-de-siecle Hong Kong.

In other words, films like Centre Stage and Rouge introduce a level of mystery and ambiguity into their stories about doomed and tragic lives in historical time. As in Wong's Chungking Express (1994), Kwan exhibits a fascination with mirrors and other reflected surfaces, a theme which suggests the fragmentary nature of modern Hong Kong subjectivity while also documenting the material reality of the city's own public spaces. However, there is still a clear difference in sensibility between the two directors.

As a number of other critics have already pointed out, neither Wong Kar-wai nor Stanley Kwan simply reproduce the generic patterns of popular Hong Kong cinema. Instead, each uses genre (the gangster film, ghost drama, martial arts epic, bio pic) as a means of gaining access to personal stories of love and emotion. But Wong Kar-wai, in his more recent work at least, has projected a form of humor and optimism that seems more willing to imagine a future beyond 1997 (which may be one reason why his ostensibly less somber films are more popular with the likes of Quentin Tarantino).

By contrast, the delicate mirror shots, cardboard backdrops and fragile crane movements in Centre Stage can be taken as being more resigned and pessimistic. Kwan's high style is used to extend the theme of Hong Kong as a lost or fallen city. This historical analogy is entirely suited to Centre Stage, firstly, because of the personal nature of the bio-pic: once again, trial scenes are used to suggest the morality lessons that can be learnt from the historical personage's validation or fall--in this case, Ruan Lingyu is held up to public scrutiny and hounded from pillar to post. Secondly, however, the melodramatic imagination is especially conducive to narratives of the lost city in the Chinese context because it can be tied in with the historical figure of the fallen woman.

Certainly, both Western and European fiction and cinema of the 1930s and 1940's codified the lost city and its fallen inhabitants in gendered terms--Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City, for example, is fairly explicit on this score.(13) (Kwan is on record as saying that this is one of his favorite books; it was also made into a film in 1984 by Hong Kong `New Wave' director Ann Hui, who had been one of Kwan's early mentors). In Centre Stage, then, 1930s Shanghai and 1990s Hong Kong are clearly contrasted as modern, cosmopolitan cities that suffer invasion by an occupying force (the Japanese and Communists, respectively), and this theme is worked out though the experiences of a tragically doomed yet beautiful woman who represents the city itself. While Kwan's mise-en-scene often traps Ruan within bars and other restrictive framings, as in classic films by Ophuls, Sirk, and Minnelli, his high style aesthetic pushes such ironic set-ups one step further by reconstructing the original meaning of Ruan's films around the affective sensibilities of contemporary Hong Kong subjectivity.

A reconstruction from early on in the film (which takes place, like so many other melodramatic scenes, on a staircase), shows Li Lili/Carina Lau parodying one of Ruan's famous performances in the film Little Toys (Sun Yu, 1933). Clutching her mouth in terror, shouting, "The enemy is coming! The enemy is coming!" for appreciative laughs from her colleagues at Lianhua, Li acts out a scene where Ruan's character cowers in the face of the Japanese invasion. The moment is politically overdetermined, offering not only a comment on the vexed question of political censorship (1930s Chinese films were not meant to criticize the Japanese: 1990s Hong Kong films are not meant to criticize the Mainland Chinese), but also an allegorical reading of Hong Kong's present situation. While this device is familiar from a number of other Hong Kong dramas like Boat People (Ann Hui, 1982), Hong Kong 1941 (Leong Po-chih, 1984), and Shanghai 1920 (Leong Po-chih, 1991), it has seldom been deployed more imaginatively than here. When we later see the heart-stirring footage of Ruan and Li themselves acting out the consequences of the Japanese invasion in the original footage, a 1930s Chinese text has been reframed and reconstructed to speak directly about Hong Kong's own impending "invasion".

For Ackbar Abbas, the melodramatic poignancy of modern Hong Kong cinema is embodied in the fact that the city is discovering itself at the very moment of its disappearance--as the city is "lost", it comes into view. In many of the best contemporary films from the settlement, the diegetic past becomes confused with the diegetic present, and both are implicated in nostalgia for an age yet to come. The splendid recreations of 1930s Hong Kong and 1930s Shanghai in Rouge and Centre Stage supply acts of remembrance--just as Shanghai's way of life changed, Hong Kong, too, may become frozen, trapped at the wrong end of a fifty year time zone. Centre Stage itself draws to a close with the camera tracking into an empty Hong Kong studio, then switching to black-and-white footage from 1991 of the Lianhua studio itself being razed to the ground. If, in the makebelieve world of filmmaking, studios are sites where real emotions can be manufactured on celluloid, the work of Stanley Kwan affirms the value of pan-Chinese cinematic and affective bonds wherever they are to be found.

It is especially revealing, finally, that Centre Stage chooses not to represent the exterior space of Hong Kong itself. Even though we are given many interviews that were shot in the present day city, there is no visual or spatial exploration of its geography. It is telling that a reconstruction scene from 1932 moves Ruan from war-torn Shanghai to Hong Kong, but does not depict the reality of the colony. In this scene, a transitional cut takes us from an extreme long shot of buildings in Shanghai to a cramped medium shot of a Hong Kong interior. But as there is no establishment of the space of this new location, the implication is that Hong Kong itself has been visually eradicated. Kwan refuses to provide the traditional establishing shot of the new location because he wants to suggest that the actress's new destination is a lost space, one that has been displaced by the emergence of a new centre of representational power. Following on from this train of thought, it is perfectly in keeping that while relaxing in Hong Kong, Ruan Lingyu should be thinking of her mother and daughter back home in Shanghai. Once again, text and subtext are collapsed into one. For while researching and shooting their film, or while watching the finished version projected in Hong Kong theaters in 1991, Maggie Cheung, Stanley Kwan, and everyone else involved in the production, circulation, and consumption of Centre Stage would also have had China on their mind.

(1) . Ackbar Abbas, "The New Hong Kong Cinema and the Deja Disparu", Discourse, vol. 16, no. 3 (Spring 1994), pp. 65-77. (All other references to this article are included in parentheses).

(2) . See Rey Chow, "A Souvenir of Love", Modern Chinese Literature, vol 7 (1993), pp. 59-76: Leo Ou-fan Lee, "Two Films From Hong Kong: Parody and Allegory", in Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, and Esther Yau (eds.), New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 202-215: David L. Eng, "Love at Last Site: Waiting for Oedipus in Stanley Kwan's Rouge", Camera Obscura 32 (September-January 1993-94), pp. 75-101. Also Tony Rayns, "Rouge" and "Love Unto Waste" (on Stanley Kwan), Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 57, no. 673 (February 1990), pp. 31-33.

(3) . See Michael Atkinson, "Songs of Crushed Love: The Cinema of Stanley Kwan", Film Comment, vol. 32, no. 3 (May/June 1996), pp. 42-49.

(4) . George F. Custen, Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1992). (All other references to this book are included in parenthesis).

(5) . Centre Stage shares this distinction with Todd Haynes' suppressed Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)--a mini-feature which turns the genre on its head by including the best-ever performance by a Barbie doll in a major motion picture--and Derek Jarman's postmodern biographies of such figures as Caravaggio (1986), Edward II (1991), and Wittgenstein (1992).

(6) . Stephen Teo suggests that since the screenplay marks the collaboration between critic Chiao Hsiung-ping and Kwan's regular scenarist, Qiu Dai Anping, the "crux of the film's dialectics" resides in the juxtaposition of two distinct writing styles--the "dialectical monochromatic and the historical". Stephen Teo, "Centre Stage", Cinemaya 14 (Winter 1991-92), p. 26.

(7) . It may be useful to distinguish here between such films (which include Centre Stage and The Last Princess of Manchuria, Fong Ling-ching's 1990 study of the infamous Kawashima Yoshiko), and the bio-pics of denial and reassurance, those titles (such as Alex Law's 1988 Painted Faces, about the Peking Opera troupe that housed Jackie Chan, Samo Hung, and Yuen Biao) which regress to the safety of nostalgic sentimentality.

(8) . Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History From the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1995).

(9) . For a similar argument concerning the work of such Mainland 5th Generation directors as Chen Kaige and Hu Mei, see Chris Berry, "From Post-Colonialism to Post-Socialism: The Chinese Context of the 5th Generation", in Klaus Eder and Deac Rossell (eds.), New Chinese Cinema (London, British Film Institute/ National Film Theatre. 1993), pp. 74-83.

(10) . Berenice Reynaud, "Glamour and Suffering: Gong Li and the History of Chinese Stars", in Pam Cook and Philip Dodd (ed.), Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1993), p. 28.

(11) . Tony Rayns. "Hard Boiled", Sight and Sound, vol. 2, no. 4 (August 1992), p. 23.

(12) . This original photograph, together with many others that provide the basis for the "look" of the reconstructions in Centre Stage, is collected in Cheng Jihua (ed.), Ruan Lingyu (Beijing, Zhongguo dianying chubanshe, 1985). I am grateful to Paola Voci for lending me her copy of this book.

(13) . For an extended discussion of this theme, see Yingjin Zhang, The City in Modern Chinese Literature and Film: Configurations of Space, Time, and Gender (Stanford, University of Stanford Press, 1996). It might be interesting to analyze such 1930s Chinese films as The Goddess (about prostitution) in light of Lea Jacobs' excellent work on codes of censorship in 1930s Hollywood. See her The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film 1928-1942 (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).
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Author:Stringer, Julian
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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