Winner of many awards at national and international film festivals and the subject of several articles and one monograph – by Mette Hjort – in Hong Kong University Press’ New Hong Kong Cinema Series, Yuen Ling-yuk/Centre Stage has justifiably earned its reputation as a classic of the Hong Kong New Wave (1). Yet debate continues concerning the nature of the film’s interrogation of the star persona of Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935) and its relevance to contemporary critical issues – questions which reflect the challenging nature of this accomplished work. Julian Stringer sees the film as a Brechtian-influenced critical and historical reconstruction of the bio-pic (2), while Shuqin Cui eloquently interrogates the film’s contradictory position in negotiating the discourses of feminism and postmodernism (3). In contrast, Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover (4), as well as Mette Hjort (5), regard Centre Stage as a work based on culturally aware readings of the crucial relationship between past Chinese cinema and its continuing future. These readings are often complementary since the film contains many complex and rich features. However, it is also necessary to explore the film’s critique of a particular “melodramatic imagination”. In essence, Centre Stage is a dialectically challenging work that interrogates a type of Hollywood-influenced melodrama common to 1930s Shanghai cinema, as well as continues the director’s historically aware explorations of feminism.

The golden age of 1930s Shanghai cinema was one where melodrama flourished. Like its Hong Kong successor, this cinema borrowed from outside sources and adapted them for its own cultural ends, rather than merely copy the original. When the film opens, Ruan Lingyu (Maggie Cheung) is about to begin her career as one of Shanghai cinema’s greatest stars. This ascension has parallels with Cheung’s own graduation from the role of Jackie Chan’s hapless May in the Police Story series, to one of Hong Kong’s most accomplished stars. Significantly, producers and directors in an all-male bathhouse are planning Ruan’s career – she has few opportunities for extending her agency during such a male dominated era. She lives an unconventional lifestyle but is as much trapped within the studio as she inside the home. The film suggests this by framing Ruan against windows and staircases – even inside the supposedly progressive Lianhua Studio. By contrast, contemporary black-and-white footage showing the director, star, and fellow actors discussing their project in a collaborative manner while studying footage from surviving films, and viewing documentary images of Ruan’s aged contemporaries such as Li Li-li and Sun Yu, suggest the presence of a much more critically and historically egalitarian and collective group of people than those seen in the period recreations. The past contrasts with the present but the two are also frequently blurred. For example, the sequence recreating a scene from Tsai Chu-seng’s Xin nü xing (New Women, 1934) tracks out to reveal not just an actor playing the director but also Stanley Kwan and his team directing the recreation.

Kwan carefully controls the visual composition of specific scenes. An early “recreation” of the image of Ruan before a mirror – in anachronistic two-tone colour – contrasts with the black-and-white “documentary” footage of contemporary production personnel discussing the implications of the scenes they have shot. Similarly, expressionistic colour cinematography showing Ruan with her family is both anachronistic and, in its evocation of 1950s Douglas Sirk movies, pertinent to the melodramatic construction of this particular film. Different cinematic styles deliberately merge in a film designed neither as fictional reconstruction nor documentary. Hjort regards Centre Stage as a critically composed heritage film rather than a “nostalgia production” or postmodernist text promoting the impossibility of learning from the past. In keeping with this, the film condemns the oppressive gossip that destroyed Ruan. It also speaks to a counter-cultural alternative present where “social energies are channeled into the creation of transparent structures that allow for the easy circulation of information and for the expression and confirmation of intent in a properly dialogic manner” (6). Centre Stage should also be recognised as a progressive interrogation of the traditional forms of Western and Eastern melodrama, and the contrasts between the reconstruction of the historical Ruan’s brief career as a star and the present day are central to undermining audience identification. Life must never imitate film melodrama again.

Kwan further develops the female-orientated themes of Nu ren xin (Women, 1984), Dei ha ching (Love unto Waste, 1986), Yin ji kau (Rouge, 1989), and Ren zai Niu Yue (Full Moon in New York, 1989) in Centre Stage, where “women “face the uncertainty of romantic love and strive to assert their individuality as they struggle with the restrictions imposed upon them by their stifling surroundings” (7). Stephen Teo further notes that by directing a “dialectical, self-critical text in an attempt to ‘write’ film criticism within the context of his own work, while at the same time providing a historical pre-1949 or pre-communist view of Chinese cinema” (8), Kwan recognises the affinities between 1930s Chinese melodrama and such Western influences as Frank Borzage’s films which

offered a powerfully complex way of dramatising the dissonances between two sets of ideologies, one which requires the legitimacy of desiring relationships to be sanctioned by traditional institutions, the other affirming the autonomy of the individual from prevailing institutional arrangements. (9)

This conflict also informs Centre Stage, a film that proffers a powerful alternative female role model in the figure of Marlene Dietrich, an actor that Ruan admires but whose influence she cannot fully realise and incorporate in her own time. Recognising the need for female agency and autonomy, Centre Stage critiques the Eastern and Western versions of maternal melodrama that oppress female freedom.

Ruan yearns for a maternal role she can never achieve in real life. In an early scene from Kwan’s film she pathetically admits that she adopted a daughter “for protection” during an unstable relationship. This is the nearest she can get to achieving a domestic ideal that is as impossible for her as it is for Fleur (Anita Mui in Rouge). Both women are betrayed by their lovers and condemned by social forces. The key trigger leading to Ruan’s suicide is the malicious gossip we hear that identifies her mother with the role Ruan played in Yong-gang Wu’s She nu (The Goddess, 1934). Ruan is trapped by hostile social forces that will ultimately destroy her. Many films cast her in maternal melodramas, especially those that required the shedding of tears. As Steve Neale notes, quoting Franco Moretti, “Tears are always the product of powerlessness. They presuppose two mutually opposed facts: that it is clear how the present state of things should be changed – and that this change is impossible.” (10)

Although reactionary ideological forces in 1930s Shanghai made alternative choices difficult, Kwan does show that such choices were not entirely impossible by including references to: the powerful screen image of Dietrich; the International Women’s Day talk that Ruan tragically fails to deliver; and Ruan’s attempts at achieving agency (such as when she performs a scene from The Goddess at home in front of her insensitive lover before reproducing it in the studio, or when she directs the performance of the actor Li-Li-li (Carina Lau) playing her daughter during a retake of a scene from Sun Yu’s Xiao Wanyi [Little Toys, 1933]). Although left-wing director Tsai Chu-seng directs one of Ruan’s greatest performances in New Women, he also betrays her in the same way that Chen (Leslie Cheung) does Fleur in Rouge. Following the hostile press reaction to New Women, it is Ruan who urges Tsai not to censor his film, advice he refuses to follow. Ruan’s most celebrated role was as the sacrificial prostitute mother in The Goddess. By contrast, when we see her during scenes set in a westernised Shanghai ballroom she is either prominently associated with other women, in brief moments of female bonding, or dancing alone as Tang Jishan collapses on the floor in a drunken stupor. Centre Stage sadly demonstrates how life imitated maternal melodrama in Ruan’s era. She dies like a sacrificial mother before a sleeping son in her last scene with Tang, freeing him for future lovers.

Tears could be expected in the funeral scene. But, unlike such films as Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), cited by Neale, very few people cry in this scene. Tsai Chu-seng does but more from a sense of guilt than any other emotion. In an earlier scene, he critiques Ruan’s fascination with Dietrich’s powerful image, regarding it as bourgeois when compared to his view of the proletarian woman. He plainly never saw Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg, 1932), where Marlene’s hausfrau status deliberately contradicts her essential agency as an independent woman. Ruan desires this agency but directors, lovers, and reactionary social forces deny its full realisation. The lack of tears in the funeral scene is therefore deliberate and pointed. Earlier, the aged Li Li-li remembers that Ruan’s adopted daughter asked her why she never cried at the funeral. Kwan wishes audiences to understand the inappropriateness of such a response and “interrupts” Ruan’s male directors who deliver orations while she lies silent in her coffin. For example, several moments in this sequence either show Cheung being made up or Kwan noting that her inappropriate breathing necessitates a further take. After a final take that shows Cheung in the same position as a photograph of Ruan, Cheung can finally “take a breather” and shooting finishes. Kwan announces, “Cut!” Cheung opens her eyes, breathes, and lives, an act impossible for her tragic, historical counterpart. Cheung will live rather than be trapped by the deadly institutional and melodramatic forces lurking on and off the screen, and that cut short the personal and cinematic potential of great actresses. Kwan and his colleagues recognise the importance of the past while also critically analysing it. While Cheung’s Ruan cried in agony on the couch as the tabloid press victimised her for violating traditional codes of behavior, Stanley Kwan and Maggie Cheung know that in their era there can be “no time for tears”, especially those associated with a conservative world of maternal melodrama that makes women compliant, sacrificial victims. As Kenji Mizoguchi also recognised in Chikamatsu Monogatari (The Crucified Lovers, 1954), sacrifice and surrender to reactionary social forces is no longer a valid response.

Endnotes

  1. Centre Stage won awards for Best Actress, Best Cinematographer, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, and Best Original Film Song at the 1992 Hong Kong Film Festival; Best Hong Kong Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Actress Award at Taiwan’s 28th Golden Horse Awards in 1981. It also gained Maggie Cheung the Silver Bear Best Actress Award at the 42nd Berlin International Film Festival in 1992, and Best Director and Best Actress Awards at the 1992 Chicago International Film Festival.
  2. Julian Stringer, “Centre-Stage: Reconstructing the Biopic, Cineaction no. 42, 1997, pp. 28-39.
  3. Shuqin Cui, “Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage: The (Im)possible Engagement between Feminism and Postmodernism”, Cinema Journal vol. 39, no. 4, Summer 2000, pp. 60-80.
  4. Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover, “Resisting the Stage: Imaging/Imagining Ruan Lingyu in Stanley Kwan’s Actress”, Asian Cinema vol. 11, no. 2, Fall/Winter 2000, pp. 92-98.
  5. Mette Hjort, Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2006.
  6. Hjort, p. 108.
  7. Stephen Teo, Hong Kong: The Extra Dimensions, BFI, London, 1997, p. 190.
  8. Teo, p. 192.
  9. Teo, p. 208.
  10. Steve Neale, “Melodrama and Tears”, Screen vol. 27, no. 6, 1986, p. 8.

Yuen Lingyuk/Ruan Lingyu/Center Stage/Actress (1992 Hong Kong 148 mins)

Prod Co: Golden harvest/Golden Way Films/Paragon Films Prod: Jackie Chan, Leonard Ho Dir: Stanley Kwan Scr: Yau Dai An-ping, from a story by Peggy Chaio; Photo: Poon Hang-sang Ed: Cheung Yu-chung Art Dir: Piu Yan-muk Mus: Hsiao Chung

Cast: Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Laurence Ng, Waise Lee, Chin Han, Cecilia Yip

About The Author

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. A frequent contributor to CTEQ Annotations on Film, he has recently published the second edition of Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an American Filmmaker. The second edition of Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Filmis scheduled for December 2014. The second edition of The Cinema of George Romero and an edited collection of essays, Postcolonialism, Diaspora, and Alternative Histories: The Cinema of Evans Chan, will appear in 2015.