Kwan & Gabo films (2021) | featured image

Life Irritates Art in These Stanley Kwan and James Cruze Talkies

Kwan’s art-house Center Stage and Cruze’s vulgar The Great Gabbo both touch on the tragic tropes of performers whose careers suck up their lives.

Center Stage
Stanley Kwan
Film Movement
8 June 2021
The Great Gabbo
James Cruze
Kino Lorber
13 July 2021

Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage (Ruan Lingyu, 1991) arrives in its complete 154-minute form as a 4K restoration from Film Movement Classics. At the same time, James Cruze’s early talkie The Great Gabbo (1929), digitally restored from a Library of Congress preservation copy, arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

They make a fine double feature. Separated by half a century and half a world, both take place during the era of cinema’s transition to talkies and explore the dilemma of artists who confuse the reality of performance with the pretense of real life.

Center Stage (Ruan Lingyu, 1991)

Director: Stanley Kwan

Center Stage is the biopic of Ruan Lingyu, a legendary Shanghai silent-film star of the late 1920s and ’30s who killed herself at age 24. That description sounds like you can guess how the film must go because if Hollywood or indeed anyone else had made it, the plot would follow a standard melodramatic trajectory of struggle, triumph, and heartbreak, a trajectory this film refreshingly avoids.

The screenplay by Peggy Chiao (aka Yau Dai An Ping) is constructed as a series of personal scenes, usually quiet moments from the star’s work and private life in her last few years. She puts up with lovers, she has an adopted daughter raised by her mother, she chats with colleagues at the studio, she dances at nightclubs while people discuss the erupting war with Japan and censorship issues, and she films scenes from various melodramas about suffering women in which she starred.

The approach is calm and anti-melodramatic, and above all respectful. The dramatic scenes, shot by Poon Hang Seng with an amber patina of glowing memory that picks out the colors of its star’s silk dresses, are linked by black and white documentary footage in which the various participants, including star Maggie Cheung, are interviewed by Kwan and discuss various topics about Ruan, her era, her surviving co-stars and directors (also interviewed). If a given film exists, we see clips from it. Otherwise, we see brief reconstructions.

By the last act, the “documentary” parts are no longer marked off by black and white, so that the business of filming becomes part of the film. In other words, when Kwan recreates a historical photo of Ruan’s attractively coiffed corpse on display for the press, we see the real photo and we also see Kwan instructing Cheung to hold her breath. We hold it with her until he yells “Cut”, and then we both breathe again. The layers of pretense multiply, as do layers of commentary about acting and reality, how one element cheats or exploits the other.

You might suppose these Brechtian alienation devices, which take us out of the story, would mitigate Cheung’s performance or the emotional power of the subject matter. The effect is the opposite. Cheung’s embodiment of a shy but determined star of yesteryear becomes magnificently convincing, and the sense of loss and tragedy is intelligently underlined.

When Kwan presents brief scenes of Ruan acting in silent films now lost, credits appear on screen to name the film’s details and say “Film no longer available”. When we see clips, these are ragged and deteriorated, though Ruan’s face shows clearly. In either case, we’re reminded of the fragility of both life and film.

Most of Ruan’s films are gone, as are most films of Shanghai’s glorious pre-war era, gone with the wind, the dust, the fire, the nitrate. The fact that some of her colleagues in the story, including younger co-star Li Lili (Carina Lau), were still alive to be interviewed by Kwan, having survived longer than many of their films, underlines history’s carelessness.

Kwan and Chiao’s collection of intimate scenes, often set in vast and unreal spaces, show Ruan forever looking out of windows or into mirrors, or else having casual, largely unfraught conversations that contrast with the high melodrama of the film-withing-film scenes. By presenting its enigmatic star figure in an understated manner, always carefully made up and dressed per the requirements of her jobs as actress or mistress, the film and Cheung’s portrayal draw us into the idea of an ordinary person, someone balancing strength and vulnerability as she’s pulled by various responsibilities.

Tony Leung Ka Fai plays Tsai Chu-sheng (aka Cai Chusheng), director of the masterpiece New Woman or New Women (Xīn nǚxìng, 1935), released the month before the star’s suicide. According to Kwan’s discreet account, the director and star had a brief affair. Scenes on the filming of this New Woman imply the personal strain of the subject matter and general situation upon Ruan.

In a cruel irony, that film was inspired by film actress Ai Xia, who committed suicide in 1934. She’d written an autobiographical novel, A Woman of Today (Xiandai yi Nüxing, 1933), and starred in the film version that year. Tsai Chu-sheng blamed the press for hounding Ai Xia to death, and these implications in New Woman had to be censored to please the same press. Then a scandal erupted when Ruan’s estranged husband, a gambler whom she’d been supporting with her film work, sued her and her wealthy lover.

As Kwan’s film recounts it, Ruan went out dancing at a nightclub whose band played especially languorous versions of “South American Way” and “La Cucaracha” (the influence of the West), then wrote a suicide note and took an overdose of pills after midnight on International Women’s Day, when she’d been scheduled to speak at a girls’ school.

As critic Paul Fonoroff explains in a bonus interview, Ruan is unfortunately far from the only Chinese woman film star to kill herself. There’s a long list, which should give us pause. However, she’s the one whose talent and mystique most engage viewers today. She’s been the subject of two TV serials about her life, one made prior to Kwan’s film and the other later, so there’s been no lack of opportunity to chew over the details. Kwan pays her legend the tribute of fabricating it as itself a gorgeous piece of cinema–slow, intelligent, warm, absorbing.

Film buffs will be grateful for this Blu-ray from a restored 4K scan. It would be wonderful if Film Movement Classics also resurrected Kwan’s Rouge (Yānzhī kòu, 1988), an equally gorgeous ghost story of love, cinema, and suicide that harks back to the same era. Is anyone listening?