Virtual Cinema | See Maggie Cheung’s Luminous Portrayal of Chinese Silent-Film Star Ruan Lingyu in “Center Stage” May 22, 2021

Silent-film actress Ruan Lingyu, often called “the Chinese Greta Garbo,” is a legend in China, and Stanley Kwan’s 1991 drama Center Stage chronicles her rise to fame, which culminated tragically in her suicide in 1935 at age 25. Anchored by an incandescent performance from Maggie Cheung, this film is one of the best biopics ever made, challenging nearly every convention associated with the genre. Cheung won the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival. 

Artistic creation goes behind the scenes
Kwan blends lush, full-color scenes of Ruan’s life with grainy black-and-white clips from her movies. He also includes both color and black-and-white documentary footage of himself and his cast talking about their roles; interviews with artists who knew and worked with Ruan; and commentary from a film scholar. He deliberately blurs the distinctions between his re-creations of Ruan’s movies and the originals, juxtaposing Cheung’s performance as Ruan with Ruan herself. Yet he also continually calls the viewer’s attention to the process of artistic creation, showing behind-the-scenes footage of how Center Stage was made alongside scenes staging the filming of Ruan’s movies. Kwan uses these techniques to undercut the traditional idea of the biopic, which tends to depict a linear, realistic account of an individual life.

Life parallels art
Center Stage presents numerous parallels between Ruan’s life and her art, which become increasingly emotionally affecting as the film unfolds. In particular, Kwan suggests the ways in which Ruan was defined and confined by the male-dominated Chinese film industry, which cast her as helpless victims and prostitutes. However, Ruan also offers her own attempts at resistance to patriarchal structures, advocating for better, less stereotypical roles, and becoming more politically engaged during the Japanese occupation of China.

“How should we remember her?” 
Kwan raises important questions about Ruan’s life that move beyond the issue of her suicide. Most pressingly, he asks “How should we remember her?” Cheung’s luminous, deeply moving portrayal captures aspects of Ruan, such as an abiding love for her adopted daughter, often self-destructive commitment to acting, and attempts to forge relationships with a series of unworthy men. Yet Kwan reminds us that Ruan’s life, like any life, is fragmented and ephemeral—though often achingly beautiful.

• Center Stage / WATCH HERE May 28–June 6. Your ticket ($10) supports the MFAH and provides a 3-day pass to the film. SEE THE TRAILER

About the Author
Elizabeth Klett is a professor of literature at the University of Houston–Clear Lake.

Underwriting for the Film Department is provided by Tenaris and the Vaughn Foundation. Generous funding is provided by Nina and Michael Zilkha; The Consulate General of the Republic of Korea; Franci Neely; Carrin Patman and Jim Derrick; Lois Chiles Foundation; ILEX Foundation; L’Alliance Française de Houston; and The Foundation for Independent Media Arts.