Center Stage (1991)

Review #1,316

Director:  Stanley Kwan
Cast:  Maggie Cheung, Chin Han, Tony Leung Ka Fai
Plot:  Biopic of 1930s Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu.

Genre:  Biography / Drama / Romance
Awards:  Won Silver Bear for Best Actress (Berlin)
Runtime:  151min (director's cut)
Rating:  PG
Distributor:  Fortune Star Media Ltd

This could have been a biopic of the highest order, but it is somewhat marred by an unbelievably draggy final act.  Of course, I saw the 151-minute restored director's cut, and can't help but wonder if the shorter theatrical version (which I have not seen) would have fared any better. 

The director is Stanley Kwan, known for such works as Rogue (1987), Red Rose White Rose (1994) and Lan Yu (2001).  He brings to the table a film of remarkable inquisition, making use of its meta-filmic elements to engage the past in order to inform the present. 

The past is represented by Ruan Lingyu, perhaps the most famous Chinese silent movie star of the 1930s, appearing in a handful of films of which most have been lost forever.  She lived to 25 before taking her life, sending shockwaves throughout the country. 

Maggie Cheung, in a well-deserved Silver Berlin Bear-winning performance, embodies Ruan as she (and Kwan) bring her tragic story to the big screen.  Her acting is top-notch in what could be one of her finest screen displays.

It's a very challenging role—not only must she be Ruan, she must also be Maggie Cheung playing Ruan.  Kwan also brings his meta-cinema to another level by having her and other co-stars including Carina Lau speak with him and (much) older actors from the '30s in a dialogue about Ruan's life and legacy. 

In essence, Center Stage functions as a biopic, reenactment and documentary.  It also acts as a discourse by Hong Kong filmmakers of the '90s on China's cinema of the '30s.  Perhaps because of the ambition of Kwan in attempting to bring everything together, he becomes obsessed in paying tribute to Ruan by taking it as far as he possibly could. 

There were at least two opportunities to bring the film to a close—one involves a recurring dance floor sequence; the other is when the original song 'Fallen Heart', sung by Tracy Huang, first came into play—which would have been tonally spot-on, and kept the picture tighter. 

With a number of cuts available, I'm sure one could find a version that would resonate best.  But this director's cut, a solid biopic as it is, didn't work fluently for me. 

Verdict: The director's cut does feel its length with an unbelievably draggy final twenty minutes, otherwise this is a rather solid biopic by Stanley Kwan. 


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