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Film Review: Center Stage 阮玲玉 (1991) - Hong Kong [HKIFF45]

Andrew Chan Center Stage HKIFF Maggie Cheung Stanley Kwan

Film Review: Center Stage 阮玲玉 (1991) - Hong Kong [HKIFF45]

Reviewed as part of 45th Hong Kong International Film Festival 2021 by Andrew Chan (Film Critics Circle of Australia)

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Based in on the tragic yet inspiring life of the beautiful and talented 1930s Shanghainese actress Ruan Lingyu. In creating and directing this masterpiece epic running at over two and half hours, Stanley Kwan at 33 years of age made his possibly the most perfect film and thus cemented Maggie Cheung as a premier international award winning actress with the Silver Bear at Berlin. Like a match made in heaven, Cheung’s looks and composure are uncanny similar to Ruan as Kwan smartly infuse a film that switches between reality and movie making.

It is this technique that makes “Center Stage” a notch above its numerous stories told about the tragic life of Ruan. One moment we see actors and actresses discussing about their own lives and Ruan’s career and in another we see interviews with real life friends and directors of Ruan. In the next scene we get back to the actual movie itself. All this adds up to a beautiful film that is thought provoking as it is a dialogue between Kwan and the audience directly and indirectly.

Maggie Cheung’s transformation from flower vase roles to the impeccable and legendary Ruan Lingyu is nothing short of amazing. With only supporting dramatic roles in Wong Kar Wai’s “As Tears Ho By” and “Days of Being Wild” to boot, Cheung excels in all scenes and almost brings the character to life in the most beautiful manner. There are flaws and beauty in the character and at times, it also parallels Kwan’s own personality. Ably supported by a wonderful and hateful turn by cheating and gambling husband played by Lawrence Ng. Tony Leung Ka Fai plays her final film’s director  with an edge of timid in love and action and expressive in views. Carina Lau is playful as the real life actress and friend, but lack character depth and detail.

All in all, “Center Stage” is beautiful in its execution and it’s easily Stanley Kwan best directorial effort to date. That’s a lofty call, as Kwan have made many brilliant films in his career, but this film stands the test of times. That’s brilliant as we grow to love Kwan’s works in a manner that wine gets better with age. It’s the same with Kwan’s films, but “Center Stage” goes epic yet ageless. With the restored edition release at HKIFF this year, its the kind of film that stay with you for the ages. The final look on Maggie Cheung before her character impending death remains for long.

I rated it 10/10


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