It can all sound terribly intellectual, even boring, as the action is constantly interrupted by comments about itself. Some critics at the time complained. (“‘Center Stage’ is a curiously uninvolved movie … it’s just hard to care.”) This review missed the point. Bertolt Brecht used the effect of “distancing” or “alienation” in his plays not because he did not want the audience to respond. Sure, he wanted them to respond, but he wanted a specific type of response, and he wanted to ban unwanted responses. He didn’t care if it was “really hard to care” about the characters. In fact, Brecht’s goal was to prevent the audience from identifying with the characters. He wanted people to not only feel, but thought. This is also what Kwan wants: he includes us in his approach. In doing so, he reveals his obsession with the subject, moving us slightly away from Ruan’s journey into his. So many biopics are one-size-fits-all, taking what I call the “and then it happened, then it happened and then it happened” approach. Kwan interrupts the flow.
Ruan Lingyu, born in 1911, is an icon in China, a famous legend of silent cinema. The tabloid coverage of her complicated love life was her downfall. Gossip was rampant and Ruan couldn’t live with shame. In 1935, she committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates. She was only 24 years old. Between 1927 and her death, she made 30 films, many of which were lost, although some survived (totally or partially). One was found as recently as 1994. But even with this small catalog, what we have shows Ruan’s gift. At first, she played what she called “wallflower roles”, before moving on to more political progressive material, showing China’s “new woman”. She was appreciated for her realistic performances and for how much she, as an actress, cared about realism (that court scene again, with Ruan lying in the snow pretending to be carrying a baby, so she could know what it did). As mentioned, Ruan was often compared to Garbo, or sometimes Marlene Dietrich, but her performances in “The Goddess” or “The New Women” are more reminiscent of the depression-era actress Sylvia Sidney, now almost forgotten. but once a prominent woman known for her sensitive portraits of working class women struggling to get off the streets. Sidney’s character was extremely down to earth, what we might call “relatable,” and when his gigantic eyes quivered with tears, the audience’s hearts reached out to him. Ruan’s performance is similar. Kwan said in one of the rap sessions with his cast, “One of Ruan’s favorite expressions was staring at the skies with hopeless silence.” Even with these heavenly looks, Ruan really looks “from this land” and therefore his work still looks very contemporary. (Some Ruan films can be viewed on YouTube.)
In “Center Stage,” says Ruan, “acting is like madness. The actors are crazy. I am one of them. In many scenes, Ruan is shown creating some of his most famous roles. In “New Women” there is a scene where her character, a prostitute, is lying in a hospital bed crying: “I want to live! I want to fight back!” “New Women” was filmed in 1935, when Ruan’s life was falling apart. The paparazzi crouch in front of her house, making her a prisoner. She sees no way out. He only has a few months left to live. And so Ruan has a hard time shouting: “I want to live!” in its own hour of darkness. Kwan shows us the multiple takes needed to get the right moment, with Cheung, pale as a ghost, looking miserably unhappy, shining in suggesting Ruan’s resistance in the moment. After finally “nailing” him in a heartbreaking explosion, she hides under the sheet, sobbing uncontrollably, as the crew members walk away, awkwardly leaving the actress in her misery. Kwan’s alienation effect is still there: at the end of the scene, the camera moves back even further, to show the “Center Stage” crew standing around the bed, and Cheung says, “Tony, you forgot. to lift the sheet! ”, scolding his co-star in“ Center Stage ”, Tony Leung, for having forgotten an important part of the business. So it’s Ruan and Cheung, simultaneously, and it’s Cheung playing Ruan playing the character in “New Women” and Cheung “playing” herself in “Center Stage”. (Cheung won the Best Actress award at the 1992 Berlinale for her performance.) The levels of artifice are multiple and Kwan wants us to present them to all. He refuses to let us get too caught up in Ruan’s explosion, reminding us that none of this is real. He includes us in the project as co-creators, co-questioners, co-researchers.