Tuesday, 9 July 2013



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1992 - Hong Kong (Golden Way Films Ltd.)

DIRECTOR: Stanley Kwan
SCRIPT: Peggy Chiao, Tai An-Ping Chiu
MUSIC: Huang Jin Chen

     With this film, I really thought I hit my first serious stumble during this whole book-film-blog project. It's all fun and games when you just go along watching and reviewing films, at your leisure, doing a bit of research here and there, picking your brain and putting it all into words, but there is one, critically essential requirement that simply cannot be bypassed. I need to be able to watch the film first. And in this case it didn't seem to be all that simple. At least at the beginning. Here's what happened:

First of all, it's difficult to track down a film, when the title's wrong. Well, sort of. I'm not denying Stanley Kwan the right to call his film whatever he wants and I'm definitely not putting myself in the role of a film title critic. It's more that the English version of said title is a problem, since you won't find Stanley Kwan's ACTRESS neither on Amazon, LoveFilm, nor even on IMDB. This film is widely known as CENTER STAGE, what you can also see quite plainly on the poster attached at the top of this page. I'm sure there must have been a reason, why this film is featured in the book by its most obscure title variant, but heck, it took only a little bit of digging to properly identify it. But that was only a beginning of my real problems. It turned out that not only the title was obscure. So was the film itself. Yes, you can find a copy here and there (£135 on Amazon.co.uk for American DVD anyone? Or a more affordable, but still expensive at 30 EUR copy from Amazon.fr in Cantonese with French sous-titres?) but these are the options far beyond a reach of a humble (and not all-that-wealthy) enthusiast film blogger. There was no other way then, it seemed, I've donned my heavy rubber gloves, waders, painter-decorator overalls, sprinkled some single-cask bourbon on a dust-mask, sealed the protective goggles around my eyes with the blue-tack and with an old-school torch in my shaky hand descended into the murky, filth overflown depths of criminal underground.

I mean, I just checked the torrents, really.

Nope. It wasn't there either.

The situation was starting to look a little bit hopeless. I can't afford to buy it, I can't download it illegally and at the same time, I don't want to skip the damn thing. What do you do in such circumstances? I'll tell you what you do, you check the bloody YouTube.

Since then the film seems to have been removed from YouTube. I guess it must have been far too popular, the blockbuster as it was. Well, I'm sure we'll all now march and spend insane money on the proper, official DVDs.
Still, there's no point me linking here to a piece of an empty Internet space, so I have removed the embedded video as well. Bad luck, latecomers.

So there you go. Feel free to watch before reading on!

Not that there's much to expect. Which, probably, would not come as a massive surprise if you already had a look at my rating at the very top of this post. As far as spending two and a half hours of my life goes, this was nigh on wasted. And if it wasn't for this project, then it would have been be wasted completely.

I don't get it. I just don't get it. Why is this a masterpiece? Why is this supposed to be one of the 1001 most important films ever made? Am I really that crude and ignorant not to see what's plain and obvious for others? Or maybe it's a case of everyone else concentrating on intentions and the context, while all I've got is just the result? Either way, here's what I think: it's a bad film. It's badly acted, badly scripted, unremarkably filmed and completely missing the point it's trying to make. CENTER STAGE tells a story of a real actress, Ruan Lingyu from the start of her career to her tragic death. I would like to think, that Stanley Kwan wanted to create an emotional film that would tell a tragic story of a remarkable woman and an iconic artist so important to Chinese cinema of the 1930's, but, well, in my opinion, it doesn't. What we get instead are painfully boring shots of no action, where we merely get a suggestion of the drama, emotions and conflicts, but both the director and the actors fall embarrassingly short on delivering any of the qualities this underachieving picture required.

We are made to believe, for example, that Ruan came from a hard-working, tough-life background, but it's only being mentioned on a couple of occasions as if it didn't really matter. And even though that background information is crucial to understanding Ruan's life as a major film star in China's equivalent to Hollywood, we are only given a few statements about Ruan's past and a commentary to a scene in one of Ruan's films, in which a character's fate is likened to that of Ruan's mother. It is far too little to offer a meaningful insight into Ruan's background, to let the viewer build a reliable and comprehensive idea of her personality and all the forces that would later motivate and shape her in her adult life. I do understand that for many Chinese people the history of Ruan's life is well-known and based on that the director decided to take a lot of background context for granted, but if that's the case the end result is a fairly hermetic work, directed squarely at a specific group of viewers to which we, the rest of the world, simply do not belong. This, in turn, would mean that asking us, the uninitiated non-Chinese to appreciate such work regardless, would be a little bit too cheeky to say the least.

We are made to believe, that Ruan was a tragic figure, highly sensitive, who got betrayed and ultimately crushed by the media and yet, we see an actress (Maggie Cheung) portraying her as blandly and expressionlessly as a bowl of rice. The only reason why we know how internally conflicted Ruan was is because Stanley Kwan decided to tell us the story through the interviews and commentaries of a team working on a film about Ruan. They do provide some background information crucial to understanding Ruan and her life, but none of it is really acted on-screen by the characters. I simply can't believe that the best way of showing how tragic Ruan's story was, was to ask Maggie Cheung to just stand there and gaze aimlessly for most of the film. It's even sort of ironic, that only during the filming of one of her latest films, in 1935, we see the director Cai Chusheng explaining to Ruan, how to play emotions. Shame, Mr Kwan didn't take that particular leaf out of his own book, so to speak.
I know that there will be people out there absolutely desperate to love this film, who will have me torn apart by oxen (horses are far too fast for that kind of joy) for not seeing how subtle and esoteric Cheung's performance is, but, well... No, I don't see it. For me, it's simply far too subtle to be distinguished from wooden, boring and amateurish. And it's not just acting, unfortunately. Here also the script and directing fail miserably. The events in Ruan's life seem to be completely disjointed. When we find out about the press and media campaign against her, there's no lead up to it. There's not enough about her previous relationship with media, to show how dramatically tables have turned. When her emotional breakdown comes, there's nothing really to break down from, since throughout the film we didn't get to know her enough to build any sort of image of her normal personality. All the drama, all the tension are completely washed away, and the whole emotional appeal of Ruan's story is rather stupidly thrown away.

We are also made to believe, that Ruan was politically involved in the newly-formed communist movement as well as openly standing up for women's rights. And yet, again, it all feels like a story told, as something that was attached to the film as a brochure but the film itself doesn't even try to really show any of it. When initially Ruan is supposed to look like a part of the decadent lifestyle of the big film studios, she's just quiet, moody and withdrawn. When she's supposed to look like she's supporting her fist-raising colleagues representing the communist underground and anti-Japanese opposition, she's just quiet, moody and withdrawn. Even when she's supposed to be passionately in love, for crying out loud, she's still quiet, moody and withdrawn. It is possible, of course, that this is exactly what the real Ruan Lingyu was like, but even if this is the case, then a skilful director should try harder to build a story around such an uncharismatic character, use every possible trick of his trade to show her in an engaging way, that could still be true historically and at the same time attractive screen-wise. Stanley Kwan did none of that. On the contrary, I got a feeling, that the message he was trying to convey, was so important for Kwan, that he's completely given up on using any artistic means of building his film. It's almost as if he decided that the film will automatically be good because of what it is about and there is absolutely no need to go even a half a step beyond that. That the story will defend itself, without any need for any artistic touch-up. As a result, it feels cheap (how do you film an air ride scene? You just use a photograph and some rattling of a machine gun in the background, of course! Bob's your uncle. The magic of cinema-inducted imagination is astonishing!), for most time it just looks like a theatre play on a tight budget and with clunky extras in supporting roles. In a scene where a group of Ruan's colleagues decides to show some patriotic spirit singing a motivational song, the acting is so bad, I felt like I was watching again some good old Soviet style propaganda. With exactly the same level of acting skill. Add to this wooden dialogues, gut-wrenchingly boring shots of nothing happening and you will end up with... well, one of the most important films ever made, one of the 1001 absolute must-sees in your lifetime, apparently. Honestly? Don't think so. It's still better than spending 150 minutes of your life in a dentist's chair or walking around in shoes one size too small, but then again, these are not exactly things you would WANT to do either, are they?

I do, of course, appreciate the fact, that knowing about Ruan's life, doing a little bit research about the historical context in which this film's story sits, does help a lot in understanding its message, its cultural role. It does not surprise me at all to see, that CENTER STAGE was produced by Jackie Chan, as it very clearly addresses the aspects of the Chinese history and culture that he's got a very strong personal interest in, but saying that you have an important story to tell, and actually being able to tell it, well, these are two completely different things. And in CENTER STAGE, as far as I'm concerned, Stanley Kwan only has managed to tick one box. Which is simply not enough. I've had much better time doing my little research and reading up articles on Wikipedia related to this film than actually watching it. Ugh, I'm off to watch something pop-cultural and enjoyable, to recover...


Previously on 1001 FILMS TO SEE AND NOT DIE: An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge) - Kon Ichikawa, 1963
Next on the list: Adam's Rib - George Cukor, 1949
And after that: The Adventure - Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960

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