Centre Stage (a.k.a.The Actress)

Reviewed by YTSL

The delicate art film that came in at number 2 in the critics' poll found in Fredric Dannen and Barry Long's (1997) "Hong Kong Babylon" is a Jackie Chan produced work helmed by the man who served as assistant director on "Armour of God" (the movie best known as that which has come closest to killing the action god).  This glamorous bio-pic of Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935) stars the woman who is probably still best known to Western audiences for playing the girlfriend in five Jackie Chan vehicles (including two, which came out in the same year as this 1992 Stanley Kwan effort).  For all of its links to Hong Kong cinema's most identifiable face, the atmospheric period piece which made Maggie Cheung the first Hong Kong actress to win a major international award (at the Berlin Film Festival) would be my definite candidate for THE Jade Theatre offering which least fits the popular image many people have of Hong Kong movies.

This is not least because CENTRE-STAGE is a stylized and slow-paced work that bears more resemblance to a series of exquisite moving tableaux -- none more so for me than the one scene in which Ruan's mother changes a burnt-out light-bulb -- than any other (Hong Kong) film I know.  Then there is the sense one gets of its being filled with high-strung and sensitive characters whose most painful -- sometimes fatal -- wounds are internal, bloodless and from wars waged with words rather than any kind of physical weapons (In contrast, when Ruan is slapped hard twice by one of her lovers, she neither flinches nor exhibits any sign of hurt).  Additionally, there is the thematic fact of death weighing so heavily but also gradually on what should be a tribute to a legendary dream factory worker who committed suicide before she fully reached a quarter century of life (Life doesn't get quickly snuffed out here; it perceptibly drains away).
Amidst all this though, this (re)viewer sees that CENTRE-STAGE does bear some filmic resemblance with Jackie Chan's actioneers.  For one thing, a single figure is allowed to utterly dominate the proceedings (to the extent of reducing usually able other performers like Tony Leung Kar Fai, Chin Han, Lawrence Ng, Carina Lau, Waise Lee and Cecilia Yip to largely forgettable ciphers).  Relatedly, there is the matter of the film-makers very obviously asking their viewers to sit back and admire the considerable abilities -- physical in Chan's case; artistic in this one; differently but still technical in both -- on show in these Golden Harvest productions.  While they do inhabit different aesthetic universes, the extended and repeated scenes of an elegant, cheongsam-wearing Maggie Cheung dancing languidly yet uninhibitedly are this particular film's equivalent to the multiple presentations (in slow-motion and regular motion, from different angles) of the showpiece stunts in such as "Police Story (I)" and "Project A II".  Similarly, the scenes of director Kwan's interviewing actresses Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Lily Li (Ruan's good friend and colleague is portrayed in the film as the young woman she was by Carina Lau) and others provide as much sense of the behind the camera work being done as the shots of the director along with blooper out-takes that come on as the closing credits roll in many Jackie Chan movies.
Chin Han, Carina Lau and Maggie
On many levels, the amount and level of virtuosity on display in CENTRE-STAGE is breathtaking (IMHO, art director Pan Lai, cinematographer Poon Hang-Sang plus those responsible for the film's concert quality music fully deserve the honors they were accorded at the Hong Kong Film Awards ceremony).  This richness is made all the more evident by the sharp focus and wide shots amply utilized throughout the film to show off the abundant details in the motion picture's background and corners as well as foreground and center.  All in all, it is impossible to not consider that which has been described as Stanley Kwan's masterpiece to be a consciously fashioned work of Art.
Rather unfortunately though, the visual feast all turned out to be too much to comfortably take (in) for me.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it made for CENTRE-STAGE actually becoming experientially overwhelming and emotionally distancing.  It also doesn't help matters that a film that is supposed to center on a bygone era's celebrated but tragic actress ends up as being much more of an exhibition of the talents and efforts of certain contemporary individuals.  Even when we are shown the odd precious clip from Ruan's works that have survived, they are often placed next to re-enactments by Cheung of Ruan's parts in them.  Surely only the most fanatical worshipers at the shrine of Maggie Cheung will not feel somewhat disappointed that:  The modern-day actress' performance will stay in our memory at the expense of -- as well as long after -- the name of China's first goddess of the silver screen escaping from the minds of many of this ornate production's viewers.
Someone who likes the Magster's rating of the film:  8. 



DVD Information:

Distributor - Mega Star

The transfer is lovely, the colors stunning, the detail sharp. Thankfully, a film as visually ornate as this one has almost (read below) received the DVD treatment it deserves. 

Letterbox

Chapters - 9

Subs -English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia, Thai, Spanish and Nil.

Trailer plus the Media Asia compilation.

Synopsis and star files on Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Kar-Fai and Stanley Kwan.

The major problem with this DVD version is that it was edited down to 121 minutes. The video version ran for 141 minutes. In a quick comparison here were a few of the deleted scenes:

Early in the film after Ruan's scene in the snow and then some movie clips of Ruan, there is a discussion between Maggie and Stanley in which Stanley talks about seeing Ruan's films as a child and thinking her sexy. He also imitates some of her gestures and expressions. Maggie chimes in "not superficially sexy, but sexy to the marrow."

After the Lilly Li interview (a tiny bit which is cut - and Maggie and Carina laughing together and Maggie says "I think that Lilly saw many things!"), Tony Leung discusses his character with Kwan.

The scene in which Carina begins singing a patriotic song and everyone joins in actually begins before this when the whole group is singing the song and the writer says "I don't know how to finish it"

After the interview with Mr. Shen - who discusses Ruan's relationship with Tang - there is a discussion between Kwan, Chin Han and Lawrence Ng about their characters and what happens to them after Ruan's death. Chin Han's character lost his fortune and went to Taiwan where he became a cigarette vendor, while Ng's character actually played himself in a film version of Ruan's life - but he was dead at 36.

One of the weakest parts of the DVD version is the portrayal of the relationship between Ruan and Tony's character. At one point she asks him to marry her - but there has been very little between them leading up to this. This is somewhat improved in the tape version. After Ng's character visits Maggie in her new home, there is a scene between Maggie and Tony in a restaurant in which they discuss the film New Woman and the mood of the scene is one of easy going friendship. This entire scene is edited out.

Later after the restaurant scene which is shown on the DVD in which Tony rejects her - there is a discussion with Tony and then Maggie about whether his character did in fact love Maggie. There is also a cut to Maggie singing "Blue Angel" (the Marlene Dietrich song) in front of a mirror for a few seconds. This was all edited out.

When Ruan is shown the newspaper story that begins her descent to suicide, there are no subs on the DVD. There are on the video - "Ching sues Ruan and Tang. Love and Cohabitation. Adultery and other counts"

A scene is edit out in which Kwan asks Maggie if she would react the same way as Ruan did. Considering that Maggie has in fact had her problems with the press it is interesting that she responds "I would try and play it cool".

Towards the end there are a number of changes. It feels like someone realized that they had a lot more to edit out and the film was getting near the end. As Maggie lays down her head on Chin Han and dies, the video breaks into the mournful ballad that the DVD ends with. During the funeral scene, there are numerous shots of between takes on the video - all excised from the DVD. It's amusing watching Maggie rise up and start laughing. On the video the film ends with Tony Leung sobbing violently - then a close up of a dead Ruan - a stunning shot - then Kwan yells out "Cut - ok" and Maggie draws a large breath. All edited out.

Tony Leung, Maggie and Lawrence Ng