Center Stage (1992)

Directed by: Stanley Kwan
Written by: Yau Tai On Ping
Producers: Willie Chan & Tsui Siu-Ming
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Kar-Fai, Han Chin, Waise Lee, Lawrence Ng & Cecilia Yip

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Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1993:
Best Actress (Maggie Cheung)
Best Cinematography (Poon Hang-Sang)
Best Art Direction (Pok Yeuk-Muk)
Best Original Film Score (Siu Chung)
Best Original Song Lok sam (Fallen Heart)
Music: Siu Chung
Lyrics: Yiu Yeuk-Lung & Siu Chung
Performed by: Wong Ang-Ang

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1993:
Best Picture
Best Director (Stanley Kwan)
Best Screenplay (Yau Tai On Ping)
Best Costume Design (Pok Yeuk-Muk)

This is the true story of Chinese cinema legend Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung) and the events that led up to her suicide at the age of 25.

Stanley Kwan's Center Stage (a.k.a. Actress) is a much acclaimed drama that has suffered a cruel fate on home video. It played for cinema audiences at a length of about two and a half hours but home video versions ran 121 minutes. Presumably, a decision was made at Media Asia to fit the movie onto 2 laserdiscs, back when it was released on that format, and the original running time was therefore compromised. Fortunately, when Fortune Star began remastering part of their catalogue, they went back Center Stage and assembled a 154 minute cut that surely represents closely if not wholly Stanley Kwan's original vision. Note that most of the below notes is in regards to the 121 minute version. Added ones about the 154 edit can be found at the end of the review.

Much acclaim it deserves but the film does come off as a bit disjointed and distant. Despite being a biographical picture, Kwan opts not to follow Ruan Ling-Yu from the beginning but instead the period where she was in her prime, from 1929 until her suicide in 1935. By doing that, Kwan puts us right smack in the middle of events where characters have developed relationships and the feeling is that we're a step or two behind everyone else. It's a challenge therefore for Kwan to make us safe and caught up. Which he does but the full multiple character drama seems lacking.

Kwan brings that quiethood and visual beauty from his classic Rouge and it seems like an appropriate filmmaking choice for Center Stage as well. It means a slow narrative but investing time in it will reveal a compelling look at, as Maggie Cheung puts it in the opening interview segment, a legend. Now, I can very much be less than attentive and I had no prior knowledge as to what material was deleted from the film except I did know some of the documentary interview footage was. Regardless of how much it has to do with cuts made to the film or not, out of the actual film characters and subplots, the one concerning Carina Lau's character of Chu Chu, a fellow actress, is an example of something that radiates importance. However, the friendship between her and Ruan seems thrown to the wayside and its inclusion therefore lacks purpose other than to briefly show the comrade between actresses. There are more underdeveloped characters but at the end Kwan does rebound. The ending 20 minutes gives us a much better portrayal of Ruan's ex husband Ta-Min (Lawrence Ng from Hail The Judge and A Chinese Torture Chamber Story) for instance and the dynamics between that relationship Ruan had and the one she instead pursued with studio head Tang Shi-Shan (actor Chin Han and the character himself was engaged in another marriage, a fact Ruan accepted fully).

The movie is set in Shanghai where the Chinese cinema was thriving at this time and the rise and fall of Ruan Ling-Yu is depicted in a loving way. Loving in the production & costume design and the filmmakers show a sense of pride in their actress queen, despite her flaws. Because Ruan, as depicted, was not an angel as a person. In her profession, she showed great skill and a desire to break out of stereotypical roles but her private life revealed a weakness in material things as she herself admits. Her leaving of Ta-Min is a black part of her arc even if she seems constantly surrounded by angelic light, courtesy of the wonderful cinematography by Poon Hang Sang. Kwan is not here to take sides. It's huge admiration but respect also means acknowledging character flaws. There's no doubt the impact Ruan had and Kwan firmly leaves that in audiences mind, especially when he juxtaposes the severely damaged black and white footage of the real Ruan Ling-Yu and the re-created scenes with Maggie Cheung. It's her character-journey that remains interesting to follow and Kwan does that employing his slow style, without sacrificing character traits.

Featuring both Waise Lee, Cecilia Yip and Carina Lau (who, to be honest, looks more like Ruan Ling-Yu than Maggie) in supporting roles, they of course can't outshine Maggie Cheung but it's disappointing to note that neither is put to well use. Only Tony Leung Kar-Fai (one of the most suave looking Hong Kong actors), playing director Tsai Chu-Cheng manages to register impact, despite his relatively little screen time. You can't say enough and shouldn't say enough about Maggie Cheung's award winning performance though. She is perfect and easily melts into the look, feel of the times and of actress Ruan Ling-Yu. The discussed character arc, both for its flaws and positives, is handled marvelously by Maggie and scenes showing her taking directions on the spot really echoes her skill as an actress as well, being able to change emotional beats so professionally. As with Rouge and Anita Mui's performance, Stanley Kwan has again directed an award winning, memorable female lead performance to much perfection.

Shame that not all surrounding characters does get the full treatment but I would be interested to see how it would play out in director Kwan's original cut. As it stands now, Center Stage is a compelling drama that looks at the movie making climate of the time (which is eerily similar to today's, in China) and features image upon image of Maggie Cheung's uncanny beauty. She truly was a moviestar at the time and still is, possessing the same versatility as Ruan Ling-Yu. There was no better casting choice and Center Stage will forever be remembered for Maggie despite flaws outside of her performance along the way.

2008 EDIT: Upon revisiting the film, the 154 minute cut as put out by IVL and Joy Sales reveals a good deal more worth taking in. As for my final tally of the movie, there is stuff that personally don't reach me (like the entire character gallery including Carina Lau and Tony Leung Kar-Fai but Lawrence Ng's Ta-Min gets a bit more depth via modern day interviews) but consciously and perhaps subconsciously, the story of Ruan Ling-Yi now at full length is something that grows on you. Many arguments will be put forward about the way she choose to exit this world and that's valid. So is Center Stage as a slow, at times hypnotic portrayal of an early movie industry with a figure that wanted to develop but couldn't take the poor backlash upon her.

As for additions in the longer cut, we see more re-enactments, certain camera movies are longer but most of the footage is made up of interviews conducted by Kwan with his actors and people associated with the real life events. Clearly the people responsible for the butchering didn't understand why there was such an obvious flip flop between movie events and the behind the scenes interactions between cast & crew, either via fairly extensive interviews or staged behind the scenes material. Nor can I to be honest but I decide to flow with Kwan's intentions and if only there is the actual movie with its story of Ruan to be appreciated, then that's more than enough. I wouldn't want it shortened therefore.

The DVD:

IVL (this same dvd is now distributed by Joy Sales) presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with anamorphic enhancement. The movie benefits from remastering and looks more pleasing overall compared to prior editions. However some filtering haven't done the best of favours towards colours and brightness as many scenes are way too dark.

Advertised as Original Cantonese 2.0, it's is in fact the same Cantonese/Mandarin language track as intended. However it is a downmix of the accompanying remixes in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Lacking much effects anyway, this time around a downmix doesn't annoy or intrude.

The English subtitles are in essence the same as on the Deltamac dvd but are generally cleaned up here and there, which eliminates most of the little grammar- and spelling errors there was present before. The big plus now is that all on-screen text is translated, giving us an insight of what movie is being re-enacted and if it's even available anymore. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

(from the Stanley Kwan and Paul Fonoroff interviews)

The original trailer turns up again, plus newly edited ones for Center Stage, Rouge, A Chinese Ghost Story and Police Story II, a 25 page Photo Gallery of stills (also available as a slideshow) and two new interviews, both subtitled in English. First up is Stanley Kwan (11 minutes 38 seconds). There is value in the subjects covered such as Kwan's impressions upon watching Ruan Ling-Yu's films, the research process and script development but the program is too short for any depth to be injected.

An Interview With Paul Fonoroff On Ruan Lingyu lasts 13 minutes, 1 second and he provides a fine breakdown of the career of Ruan and the moviemaking climate of the time. Included in the dvd case is a booklet containing Ruan Ling-Yu's letters written before her suicide, notes on Maggie Cheung's international acclaim for her role and an afterword by Stanley Kwan. On the flipside of this content is a larger movie poster.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson