MIFF69 – Centre Stage (1991) [and Painted Faces]

Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage [Ruan Lingyu] (1991) takes us back to the early days of Chinese cinema with a hybrid biopic/documentary depicting the rise to stardom and untimely death of silent movie star Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935), as exquisitely portrayed by Maggie Cheung. We’ll also be stepping outside of this year’s MIFF programming to explore a different aspect of the film industry with Painted Faces [Qi xiao fu] (1988), following the early years of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung as they trained in the Peking Opera tradition.

[A quick note on the anglicised spelling of Chinese names. I’ve chosen to reproduce the names of people and movies as presented in the subtitles of the restored print made available to the Melbourne International Film Festival. This often differs drastically from what you’ll find on Wikipedia or most other internet sources. Those sources are likely to be more accurate regarding modern anglicisation/translation conventions, but I thought it best to remain faithful to the film as I experienced it.]

Ruan Lingyu was China’s first great screen star, making her first film at the age of 16. Centre Stage joins her story in 1929 as the creative talent behind the newly forming Linhua Studio discuss their plans. Director Sun Yu (played here by his son Sun Dongguang) wants to showcase her potential to perform any role by casting her first as a prostitute in Reminiscences of Peking [Gu du chun meng] (1930) (aka Spring Dream of an Old Capital) before following up with a role as a chaste singer in Wayside Flowers [Ye cao xian hua] (1930) (aka Wild Flowers by the Road). We first meet Ruan herself in what appears to be a dramatic scene from her own life, until she breaks character with a smile to inform the director that her performance wasn’t good enough before repeating the scene. The line between her life and that of her characters continues to be blurred in the following scene – a conversation with the woman with whom she shared the previous scene seems at first to be part of the same narrative but turns out to be an intimate exchange between friends, as Ruan asks her what it feels like to give birth. In love with a man she knows will never fully commit to her, she adopted a daughter rather than rely on him but needs her friend to reassure her that you can still love a child fully without having been through the birthing experience. Although the distinction between Ruan’s life and her performances is clearer from this point, parallels between the two will remain an important aspect of the film.

Leaving aside the directors with whom she worked, the trajectory of Ruan’s life is depicted largely via her relationships with three men. First up is Chang Ta-min (Lawrence Ng), an inveterate gambler who hooked up with her when she was sixteen. Their relationship is very unbalanced – he’ll be absent for days before turning up again on her doorstep and constantly leeches off her career for extra cash and expensive gifts. He’s constantly and blatantly unfaithful, but she accepts this as just a given of being with him. The second man is Tang Chi-san (Chin Han), a wealthy married businessman first encountered alongside his mistress Chang Chih-yun, an actress who is ten years older than Ruan – and who is rumoured to be kept under his thumb by an addiction to opium. This unsubstantiated rumour is never given any credence by the film, but its introduction here foreshadows the important role that gossip will play later on. Tang takes a shine to Ruan and eventually wins her over after ending things with Chih-yun. He sets Ruan up in her own house with her mother (Hsiao Hsiang) and adopted daughter (Yumiko Cheng), taking care of the financial arrangements for the separation from her ex. Finally we have Tsai Chu-seng (Tony Leung), director of New Women [Xin nu xing] (1935) – her second-last, and most significant, film. Although it’s unclear whether or not they had a sexual relationship, they clearly have a significant emotional connection and their scenes together stand out as a highlight of the film.

New Women was based on the tragic life of Al Hsia (1912-1934), an actress and screenwriter who was hounded by the tabloids and took her own life. A little over a year after her death, Ruan Lingyu – who played her fictional counterpart Wei Ming – would leave her life in much the same way. The last half of Centre Stage is devoted to this final year of Ruan’s life. Despite being a highlight of her career, New Women was savaged by the press, who didn’t take kindly at being held to account for Al’s suicide and attempted to force cuts on the film (possibly, it’s suggested, at the instigation of the Kuomintang, who didn’t feel that Ruan was morally sound enough to represent the modern Chinese woman). Thanks to her hypocritical scum of an ex, always on the lookout for money and embittered by his bruised male ego, her relationship with Tang blows up into a tabloid scandal, beginning the spiral into depression – carefully hidden from everyone around her – which results in her suicide.

I mentioned up top that this is not a standard biopic. While much of the film’s 2½ hour running time is taken up with its dramatisation of Ruan’s life, the film opens with a discussion between director Stanley Kwan and star Maggie Cheung about their subject. Hearing a summary of how Ruan’s career developed, starting off in comedies and genre pictures before transitioning to serious dramatic roles, Maggie chuckles as she observes how much this resembles her own career, immediately establishing the theme of life imitating art. Kwan continues to intersperse his dramatic retelling with B&W interludes in which the actors discuss the real people they’re portraying and others provide additional historical context. It’s during these interludes that we learn that Chang Ta-min’s vile behaviour didn’t end with Ruan’s death – amongst the spate of dramatic works depicting the Chang-Ruan-Tang relationship triangle, Chang immediately tried to capitalise on her death by selling himself as the wronged man in a film project which was swiftly cancelled due to public backlash. Despite this he persisted, eventually playing himself in Who’s to Blame? [Shui zui guo] (1937) and a thinly veiled version of himself in Wife of a Friend [Peng you zhi qi] (1938). Neither film survives today, and Chang died in 1938.

Kwan was also fortunate enough to speak with people who knew Ruan Lingyu before her death. Included here is interview footage with director Sun Yu (filmed less than a month before his own death) and fellow actress Chan Yen-yen aka Lily Li (often characterised as Mae West to Ruan’s Marlene Dietrich) – she is played in the film by Carina Lau, who was the most significant female supporting role. Even more precious is Kwan’s use of vintage footage from Ruan’s body of work. Of the thirty films she made, most no longer exist – only seven survive in their entirety. Kwan and Chueng have done their best to fill in some of these gaps by recreating key scenes from Three Modern Women [San ge mo deng nu xing] (1932), Night in the City [Chengshi zhi ye] (1933) and The Sea of Fragrant Snow [Xiang xuehai] (1934). But while these glimpses of how it might have been are valuable, the sequences which really stand out are those in which they re-enact scenes from three films which still exist – Little Toys [Xiao wanyi] (1933), The Goddess [Shen nu] (1934) and New Women. In each instance Kwan begins by taking us behind the scenes, showing Ruan working out the details with her co-stars and listening to what her directors want her to convey. Next we see Maggie Cheung play the scenes in character, before finally juxtaposing her performance with the original scenes played by Ruan herself. It’s a masterpiece of reverse engineering how the original films were constructed while showcasing the talents of both actresses, foregrounding Maggie Cheung while granting space for Ruan Lingyu to have a voice in this depiction of her life.

Besides appearing in the documentary interludes, Kwan injects himself into the narrative by playing Fei Mu, who directed two of Ruan’s films. I’d like to quote a dialogue exchange taken from a party scene set on the last day of Ruan’s life, which she uses to say a fond farewell to her colleagues prior to her midnight suicide. Ruan is talking about the speech she’s due to give at a friend’s school in honour of Women’s Day.

Ruan: “What’s the idea of this festival? To celebrate us girls for rising up from a centuries-old men-dominated history.”

Tang (drunk): “You women are standing up and we men are falling down.”

Fei: “When women stand up it doesn’t necessarily mean men are falling down. We can stand up together in this large world.”

It’s an exchange which has little direct connection with the film surrounding it, feeling more like an authorial interjection aimed at the audience – but it’s a beautiful sentiment and, given that the film has already blurred the lines between fiction and documentary, it’s not out of place. Once we reach Ruan’s funeral in the final minutes of the film, Kwan throws out all pretense at maintaining a division between the two, cutting the emotional tension by showing his own crew filming the final scenes and the actors joking with each other. It’s a potentially risky move, but for me it worked.

I’m not very familiar with Stanley Kwan’s other work, but he received great acclaim for Rouge [Yim ji kau] (1987), a film with its roots in the same 1930s Shanghai setting. Here he’s opted for a more muted colour palette, with browns, oranges and yellows dominating – something I would have attributed to the age of the print, if not for the knowledge that this was a new 4K restoration made with the director’s supervision, making it clear that this was a deliberate choice. The movie benefits from being scripted by film critic Peggy Chiao, providing the crucial female perspective which, supported by her extensive knowledge of film history, forms the film’s spine. But for me, this is all about Maggie Cheung, who as one of the greatest actors of her generation is a perfect choice to portray China’s first female star of the silver screen. Her compelling performance demands attention whenever she’s on screen, no matter how much else is going on around her, earning her four awards as Best Actress – including the Berlin International Film Festival’s prestigious Silver Bear. Without meaning to imply anything negative about the rest of the cast, the only other performer working on the same level as her is Tony Leung. This isn’t the first time they’ve worked together, nor would it be the last. Sharing the small screen early in their careers on the TV series Police Cadet [San jaat si hing] (1984) and The Yangs’ Saga [Yang ka cheung] (1985), they went on to a string of four films with renowned director Wong Kar-wai – Days of Being Wild [Ah Fei jing juen] (1990), Ashes of Time [Dung che sai duk] (1994), In the Mood for Love [Fa yeung nin wah] (2000) and 2046 (2004). Rounding out their list of shared credits are The Banquet [Ho moon yeh yin] (1991), The Eagle Shooting Heroes [Se diu ying hung: Dung sing sai jau] (1993) – a parody made during the filming of Ashes of Time with the same cast – and Zhang Yimou’s Hero [Ying xiong] (2002).

About a week prior to my encounter with Centre Stage, I was coming to the end of a month-long binge on Shaw Brothers films which were about to leave Netflix. Among these films – which varied wildly in quality – one of the standouts was Alex Law’s Painted Faces, which provides a valuable historical perspective on the connective tissue linking the Peking Opera tradition (which stretches back to 1790) to the rise of the Hong Kong martial arts movie which started to gather momentum in the 1960s. Serving as the intersection point between the two is Yu Jim-yuen’s China Drama Academy, birthplace of the Seven Little Fortunes troupe whose most famous graduates include Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Yuen Qiu, Yuen Wah and Corey Yuen.

We’re introduced to the Academy through the eyes of Cheng Lung (Siu Ming-fui), referred to here mostly by his nickname Big Nose but later to achieve fame as Jackie Chan. Poorly suited to regular schools and having recently made a nuisance of himself at the American embassy in Australia, where his father worked as the head chef, his mother (Mary Li) drops him off here as a last resort. Excited by the prospect of doing nothing but pretending to fight, he eagerly volunteers for the maximum enrolment term of ten years, but soon finds that he’s signed up for a much stricter form of physical discipline than he’d anticipated. The first half of the film follows the life of the various male students as they train under the guidance of their “big brother” Sammo Hung (Yeung Yam-yin) and Master Yu (portrayed with great sympathy by the real Sammo Hung). Key elements of this section of the film are their gruelling training regimen; the mockery they receive from students attending the more academically inclined local school; the budding friendship between Cheng, Sammo and Yuen Biao (Koo Fai); the role Sammo plays in looking out for the others and taking them on the occasional illicit expedition outside their school; and the stage performances of the star pupils which are the school’s sole source of income.

The second half skips forward in time to the younger characters’ teen years, which are enlivened by their introduction to the world of the all-girls equivalent run by Ching (Cheng Pei-pei). This also allows for a rather sweet strand of potential romance between Yu and Ching, who have clearly nursed a long-term mutual attraction which turns them both into tongue-tied nervous nellies – with all the heavy lifting of the nudging them both along being left to Ching and her oldest student (unfortunately the credits are too sparsely documented for me to tell you her name). This period also sees the Peking Opera tradition in decline, as the hardcore fans age out and the younger audience flocks to the cinema instead. Dwindling box office puts the school at threat, and the decision of the government to demolish the building housing the school finishes the Academy off entirely, with its students dispersing to find work in the film industry as stuntmen – which will eventually see many of the schools alumni make their way up to become action choreographers, film directors and – for the lucky few – movie stars in their own right. The movie ends with Master Yu heading off to America to establish a new school before his retirement, paying a final fond farewell to his star students from the Seven Little Fortunes – although sadly whoever wrote the subtitles undercuts the final scene, failing to understand that the Chinese characters on the fan Yu has been gifted are intended to refer to the troupe’s name (I forgot to note down the alternate translation provided but it was something like “Seven Destinies”).

Alex Law has peppered his cast with significant actors from the history of the genre. Sammo Hung, of course, was a member of Yu’s troupe and it must have been a strange experience for him to play his own teacher – particularly in the scene which has him beating his own younger self. Cheng Pei-pei is best known for her breakthrough performance as the lead of King Hu’s Come Drink With Me [Da zui xia] (1966) and her late career appearance as Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [Wo hu cang long] (2000). Lam Ching-ying also has a major supporting role as Wah, Yu’s close friend who is approaching the end of his working life as a stunt performer. Sammo and Lam share one of the film’s best scenes, an extended sequence near the end in which Lam suffers a head injury during a stunt gone wrong and needs to be carefully talked down before he does himself further damage. Sadly, Lam himself was also nearing the end of his career at this point. After fifteen years as an actor he finally achieved fame as the Taoist priest in Mr. Vampire [Geung see sin sang] (1985), a role which was so popular that he became typecast and found it difficult to secure more varied roles. He died of cancer far too young in 1997, having lived for only 44 years. Also worthy of note is Wu Ma, an actor and director who had a small role in Mr. Vampire and cameos here as a film director, but is best known to me as the Taoist priest from A Chinese Ghost Story [Sien lui yau wan] (1987), one of my personal favourites.

Painted Faces is probably more accessible to a general audience than Centre Stage, for a few reasons. There’s the fact that more people have heard of Jackie Chan than Ruan Lingyu; there’s the wider range of potential audience identification points offered by spanning three generations; there’s the more conventional narrative structure of Painted Faces; and, of course, there’s the matter of length – Painted Faces is a lot shorter! Both, however, are well worth seeing – and for those who have the patience, Centre Stage offers a richer experience.

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