‘Center Stage’ Returns to the Spotlight

New York’s Metrograph theater revives an unconventional Chinese biopic

Biopics are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, especially during awards season, when the mere idea of dramatizing important historical personages and events imparts an aura of prestige to a film and/or performance that may or may not trump artistic merit. That makes the re-emergence of one of the most daring of biopics—Stanley Kwan’s 1991 film Center Stage, which New York City’s Metrograph theater is presenting through April 1 in a new 4K restoration from independent distributor Film Movement—even more noteworthy. If you can say the film is a biopic of Ruan Lingyu, a star of early (1930s) Chinese cinema whose legend skyrocketed after she committed suicide at the age of 24, it’s a profoundly unconventional biopic, in ways both structural and philosophical.

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Seeing Center Stage in light of two biopics currently garnering awards attention this year—David Fincher’s Mank and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah—is especially instructive. Mank revolves around the tragic life of Herman J. Mankiewicz (played in the film by Gary Oldman), credited co-screenwriter of Orson Welles’s landmark Citizen Kane; while Judas adds to the ongoing national Black Lives Matter conversation by dramatizing the radical activism of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, and the efforts of the FBI, helped by informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), to bring him down. Whatever their virtues—King’s film, in particular, hasn’t received enough credit for its fascinatingly dialectical approach in portraying the various political perspectives animating its central figures—neither breaks the biopic mold in any particularly interesting way.

Kwan’s subversions of the biopic form in Center Stage, by contrast, come right at the beginning. Both Mank and Judas and the Black Messiah end their film with the standard genre “gotcha” moment of unveiling archival footage of the biographical subject at the end, the better to appreciate just how closely the actor looks and sounds like the subject they’ve been playing.

Kwan instead front-loads footage of Ruan Lingyu, if anything to emphasize how unlike her Maggie Cheung, the actress playing her in the film, physically looks. Amid the film’s interweaving of old footage and dramatized fact, Kwan soon introduces another meta-cinematic wrench: Center Stage also features documentary scenes of Kwan talking with Cheung, other cast members, and academics about Ruan and the Chinese film industry then and now, thereby forming a bridge between past and present. This is a film that doesn’t let you forget that you’re watching a reenactment of the past with contemporary actors.

Center Stage
Maggie Cheung in Stanley Kwan’s ‘Center Stage.’

As much as Kwan boldly breaks the fourth wall, Center Stage also fulfills the baseline expectations of a biographical prestige drama. Certainly, there’s Cheung’s central performance, which revealed to the world new facets of her talent as a dramatic actress (and which nabbed her awards from the Berlin International Film Festival, the Hong Kong Film Awards, and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards). There’s visual lushness aplenty: Poon Hang Seng’s velvet-toned soft-focus cinematography and Lai Pan’s ravishing costumes bathe the period re-creations in a gorgeous amber glow.

And there are long stretches of the film, particularly in the middle, where Center Stage abandons its postmodernist effects and simply dramatizes episodes of Ruan’s tragic life: in particular, her attempts to fight against the patriarchal systems that threatened to typecast her as just a working-class country girl, and which ultimately doomed her when her romantic entanglements became the stuff of wall-to-wall tabloid and gossip fodder.

The film also features detailed reenactments of the processes behind the scenes of the making of some of Ruan’s most famous films. Unfortunately, a lot of Ruan’s films are now lost, which Kwan clearly notes in on-screen titles. Thankfully, you can stream some of her surviving films—like her last two films, The Goddess and New Women—on YouTube. So instead of trying to convince us we’re watching an authentic representation of the past, as most biopics do, Kwan goes the extra mile to make us aware that some of these sequences are his own speculations at best, however historically well-informed.

The result of this combination of conventional and self-aware biopic elements is to maintain a sense of mystery about the past—which may be Kwan’s most pointed subversion of the biopic genre, and the closest the film comes to making a philosophical argument. Whereas films like Mank and Judas and the Black Messiah perhaps try too hard to either explain the behavior of its real-life characters, or make the historical events it depicts feel relevant to the present day, Center Stage keeps Ruan Lingyu fairly opaque, making the film play as much a detective story as it is a historical pageant. We can never fully understand the past, Kwan implies, especially as history marches on and society keeps shifting. That’s something most biopics, with their attempts to recapture history, never even come close to acknowledging.

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Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima is a writer and editor based in New York City. He has previously written about film for publications including Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and Paste, and about theater for TheaterMania.

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