Of course, other countries would have their own share of film stars, even in the early years of cinema. China is an example one wouldn’t normally think of, especially in the silent era, but they were making films right along with the rest of us, and one of their first major stars was a woman by the name of Ruan Ling-yu. She was nicknamed “the Chinese Garbo”, and her life and career would end up tragically short; she ended up killing herself at age 24. Even today, Ruan Ling-yu is regarded by the Chinese as one of their greatest classical film stars, so it naturally stands to reason that they would end up making a film about her. The Actress, or more commonly known as Center Stage, is the life story of this queen of Chinese cinema, at times both a celebration of her short life, and an epitaph the world needed to hear for her.
The film has a very unusual structure to it. It is a three-fold construction; straight dramatic fiction of Ruan’s life, coupled both with interviews of the filmmakers and stars involved in the making of the film (and other interviews with various people that discuss the actress) and some footage snippets and recreations of Ruan’s films from the 1930s. The film happily jumps between these three segments whenever it wishes, but the focus is always on Ruan, no matter what may be on the screen. The modern-day actress who plays Ruan, Maggie Cheung, does a fantastic job embodying the iconic woman, and I especially liked how this was made even more evident by the comparison between Cheung in the interview segments and Cheung in character as Ruan; there is a very noticeable difference in their character and portrayal, and Cheung’s Best Actress win at the Berlin Film Festival was well deserved. The story may not be all that engaging, as it basically just follows Ruan’s life (and, for whatever reason, chooses to adapt some of the more tepid aspects of it in the process), but the film does make up for it with the musical score and some very pretty cinematography. The whole film, especially the segments with Ruan, look bathed in a soft glow, as if we were merely watching Heaven’s re-enactment of Ruan’s life, and while it could certainly be called subjective filmmaking, it worked for me, so I was a little more willing to forgive the film for this small indulgence.
I find it a little amusing that I opted for The House is Black right before this one. Both films, that one and this one, have a very poetic style to them; Center Stage is more of a dream about this actress than it is a film about her. It just also happens to have the behind-the-scenes footage cut into the film itself as well, which probably would not have worked in just about any other film, but here it adds a depth to this exploration of a Chinese cinematic icon. This falls into a weird slot with me; I found myself trying to come up with reasons why I believed this either was or wasn’t a must see, but I couldn’t find any either which way. It wasn’t enough to say that one had to see this before they died, but it’s certainly enough of an experience that I would like people to. It’s even got a message to say, given the circumstances in which Ruan would take her own life, that I think is pretty relevant in our current world of celebrity gossip and worshiping. This was very, very likable, and solidly entertaining, which, in the end, is really all that should matter for a film.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10