All of this may sound forbiddingly intellectual, or even annoying, in that the action is constantly interrupted by commentary on itself. Some critics at the time complained. (“‘Center Stage’ is a curiously uninvolving movie … It’s just plain hard to care.”) This critic missed the point. Bertolt Brecht used the “distancing” or “alienation” effect in his plays not because he didn’t want audiences to respond. Of course he wanted them to respond, but he wanted a specific kind of response, and he wanted to forbid unwelcome responses. He didn’t care if it was “plain hard to care” about the characters. In fact, Brecht’s goal was to hinder audience identification with the characters. He wanted people to not just feel, but think. This is what Kwan wants, too: he includes us in his process. In so doing, he reveals his obsession for the subject, removing us slightly from Ruan’s journey into his own. So many biopics are boilerplate, taking what I call the “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened” approach. Kwan interrupts the flow.
Ruan Lingyu, born in 1911, is an icon in China, a celebrated legend of silent film. The tabloid coverage of her complicated love life was her undoing. Gossip was rampant and Ruan could not live with the shame. In 1935 she committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates. She was just 24 years old. In between 1927 and her death, she made 30 films, many of which have been lost, although some have survived (either fully or partially). One was found as recently as 1994. But even with this tiny catalog, what we do have shows Ruan’s gift. At first she played what she called “wallflower roles,” before moving into more politically-driven progressive material, showing China’s “new woman.” She was prized for her realistic performances, and for how much she, as an actress, cared about realism (that courtyard scene again, with Ruan lying in the snow pretending to carry a baby, so she could know what it felt like). As mentioned, Ruan was often compared to Garbo, or sometimes Marlene Dietrich, but her performances in “The Goddess” or “The New Women” are suggestive more of Depression-era actress Sylvia Sidney, nearly forgotten now, but once a leading lady known for her sensitive portrayals of working-class women struggling to haul themselves out of the streets. Sidney’s persona was extremely down-to-earth, what we might call “relatable,” and when her gigantic eyes trembled with tears, audience hearts reached out to her. Ruan’s performances are similar. Kwan says in one of the rap sessions with his cast, “One of Ruan’s favorite expressions was looking up to the heavens in forlorn wordlessness.” Even with those heavenward glances, Ruan seems very much “of this earth” and so her work still feels very contemporary. (A couple of Ruan’s films can be viewed on YouTube.)
In “Center Stage,” Ruan says, “Acting is like madness. Actors are madmen. I’m one of them.” In many scenes, Ruan is shown creating some of her most famous roles. In “New Women,” there’s a scene where her character, a prostitute, lies in a hospital bed, wailing, “I want to live! I want to retaliate!” “New Women” was filmed in 1935, when Ruan’s life was falling apart. Paparazzi squat outside her house, making her a prisoner. She sees no way out. She only has a couple months left to live. And so Ruan has a difficult time screaming, “I want to live!” in her own hour of darkness. Kwan shows us the multiple takes necessary to get the moment right, with Cheung, ghostly-pale, looking wretchedly unhappy, brilliant in suggesting Ruan’s resistance to the moment. After she finally “nails” it in a heart-rending explosion, she hides under the sheet, sobbing uncontrollably, as crew members walk away, awkwardly leaving the actress in her misery. Kwan’s alienation effect is still present: As the scene ends, the camera pulls back even further, to show the crew of “Center Stage” standing around the bed, and Cheung says, “Tony, you forgot to lift up the sheet!”, scolding her co-star in “Center Stage,” Tony Leung, for forgetting an important part of 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 at the 1992 Berlinale for her performance.) The layers of artifice are multiple, and Kwan wants us present to all of them. He refuses to let us get too caught up in Ruan’s outburst, reminding us that none of it is real. He includes us in the project as co-creators, co-questioners, co-investigators.