The stately, intimate and pictorially perfect “Center Stage” was Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan’s “Citizen Kane” styled experiment in screen biography.
He set out to tell the tragic story of a legend of early Chinese cinema, a starlet whose beauty was said to rival Garbo’s, but who took her own life because of a personal scandal when she was 24. Kwan, who went on to make “Hold You Tight” and “Red Rose White Rose,” uses monochromatic archival interviews (some “aged”) with those who knew Ruan Ling-yu, staged black and white interviews with assorted film folk of the Hong Kong of 1991, commenting on Ruan’s “lost” films and her career, and long flashbacks to the late silent era and early sound cinema of 1929 into the ’30s as we see Ruan’s acting style, her commitment to her roles, her personal life and her tragedy.
Maggie Cheung, of “2046,” “Hero” and “In the Mood for Love,” plays herself, longing to make her mark but not end up like Ruan, and she plays the screen legend in the long, lush flashbacks.
She’s paired with Tony Leung (Stanley Kwan’s “Showtime,” “Lost in Beijing”) in the back-and-forth of commenting on the star of the past, and portraying Ruan’s paramour and escort to the poshest nightspots of Jazz Age China.
We visit film sets to see Ruan work, get a dose of the politics on and off the set back then (She worked just as Japan was trying out the aggression that led up to World War II — occupying Manchuria.) and sit in on planning sessions for a possible film biography of this “lost” legend of pre-war Chinese cinema.
For all the potential that scenario presents, cinema-as-it-was-then, “inventing” a new reality in screen acting. Kwan’s approach is so quiet, intimate and slow that the whole affair — outside of the chatty and realistic table read and banter of the present day moments — feels like a lacquered-over still-life.
Seeing immaculate recreations of silent and early-sound film sets, soundstages with skylights instead of artificial light, is all well and good. But just because what was on screen was silent that doesn’t mean the footage was the product of dead quiet on the set.
Directors would have on-set musicians to set a mood, whisper or call out directions to alter the performance as it was happening. There’s no “life” to these moments in Kwan’s vision.
Cheung is far more interesting in the flashbacks — crawling in the snow by herself after hours to rehearse what her character will “feel” in the next day’s scene, dancing and night clubbing — than as “herself” in the present day footage.
The contrast between the lively banter of the present day filmmakers and the generally funereal past — gorgeous, artfully lit and shot it may be — points to why Kwan never broke through in the international cinema, turns up on no lists of “Great Hong Kong Directors” and is little known outside of cinephile circles.
Cheung won Berlin Film Fest honors when “Center Stage” came out back in 1991, but the film didn’t make her the star Gong Li became after “Ju Dou” (1990) and later films with Zhang Yimou.
So I’ll say what other critics who have endorsed this picture in various releases over the years will not. It’s a lovely stiff, more artful in the attempt than in execution.
MPA Rating: unrated
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Han Chin, Lily Li, Carina Lau, Cecilia Yip, Lawrence Ng and Stanley Kwan
Credits: Directed by Stanley Kwan, script by Yau Dai an Ping. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:54