Centre Stage (1991)
Centre Stage is one of the most daring biopics reviewed on this site. It opens with the film’s director Stanley Kwan interviewing Maggie Cheung as she pores over movie stills of the late actress Ruan Lingyu. Flashback to 1929 where filmmakers are discussing Lingyu’s upcoming roles in Reminiscences of Peking and Wayside Flowers. Though a caption advises these films are now lost, the biopic reimagines filming of key scenes, followed by some surviving footage of Lingyu in other films. This intercutting of the biopic proper with contemporary black and white footage continues throughout the film, providing a unique depiction of one of China’s earliest film stars. In the end though, Centre Stage becomes too clever for its own good.
At the completion of Wayside Flowers’ filming, Lingyu returns home to her mother and adopted daughter. After a brief visit by her wayward lover Zhang Damin, Lingyu returns to the Lianhua Film Studios where she learns of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Yet the main subject of conversation amongst the studio’s staff appears to be the personal lives of their colleagues. As Lingyu’s career flourishes she too eventually becomes the victim of such gossip. A vengeful tabloid press, angry over their depiction in her latest film, fan resentment of Lingyu’s supposed abandonment of Damin and her current relationship with the wealthy Tang Jishan, driving the actress to despair.
The beautifully filmed sequences starring Maggie Chueng as Ruan Lingyu that make up the majority of this film are interrupted by a variety of black and white scenes that shed light on the facts but are rarely illuminating. Clips from Lingyu’s films that follow Kwan’s recreations and behind the scenes footage of the cast and crew discussing the biopic’s characters have a distancing effect. Interviews are also conducted with some of Lingyu’s colleagues but they leave the impression that the juxtaposition of these disparate elements is more important than the telling of Lingyu’s story itself. This is no more apparent than when the filmmakers visit director Sun Yu, who is portrayed in the biopic sequences by his son Sun Dongguang. As footage of the interview is screened to his crew, Kwan confesses that a series of strokes has left the elderly director unable to provide any useful information. Eventually the conceit of smashing the fourth wall is completely overcooked during Lingyu’s funeral.
During one of the biopic’s scene recreations, director Pu Wan-chang complains to his cameraman that turning the camera at the wrong speed will make the film much longer. Alas, so too does protracted scenes of gossip and perfunctory black and white clips.
Biopic depicts Ruan Lingyu writing a suicide note to Tang Jishan and an open letter to the newspapers. However, from the time of her death there has been some doubt over the letters’ authenticity, with many scholars believing they were forged at the instigation of Tang Jishan.
Biopic features scene recreations from many of Ruan Lingyu’s films with the Lianhua Film Company including Reminiscences of Peking, Wayside Flowers, The Peach Girl, Three Modern Women, Night in the City, Little Toys, A Sea of Fragrant Snow, The Goddess and New Women.