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Film / Center Stage (1991)

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Center Stage is a 1991 film from Hong Kong directed by Stanley Kwan.

It tells the story of Ruan Lingyu, an icon of early Chinese cinema, who committed suicide in 1935 a month shy of her 25th birthday. The movie confines itself to the last six years of Lingyu's life, starting with 1929 when she is already a major star in Chinese films. Ruan (Maggie Cheung) has a handsome but dissolute husband, Ta-min (Lawrence Ng), who was cast out of his aristocratic family and is now a gambling addict who leeches off his wife's income. Eventually she dumps him, but she is forced to pay him alimony.

Ruan's star continues to rise. As Japan encroaches on Chinese territory and a sporadic conflict threatens to blow up into a full-scale war (in 1937, it does), Ruan's studio, Lianhua, begins to make more political films dealing with the Japanese threat. Ruan benefits from this trend, playing more modern women as opposed to victims in melodramas. However, she isn't as canny in her personal life, falling in love with a married man, Ji-shan (Qin Han). Her personal heartbreaks, and trouble with the ruling Kuomintang Party that doesn't like the anti-Japanese films Ruan is starring in, combine to bring her to grief.

No relation to 2000 comedy Center Stage (2000).


  • Biopic: A biopic of Chinese film star Ruan Lingyu, depicting the last six years of her life, 1929-1935.
  • Blood from the Mouth: In-Universe. Ruan's friend and fellow actress Lily has a trickle of fake blood coming from her mouth, in a scene where her character is dying after a Japanese bomb raid.
  • Dead Artists Are Better: The cast and crew of Center Stage speculate over whether or not Lingyu would still have been famous and iconic if she had lived. One person snarks that if Lingyu had still been alive, they would have been interviewing her in a movie about someone else.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: And a sort of inversion of Monochrome Past. While the main story of Ruan Lingyu is filmed in color, the present-day scenes, in which the filmmakers and cast talk with each other about her and interview people who knew her, are in black and white. One scene, in which Ruan is filming an emotional death scene in New Women, fades from color to black and white to indicate the transition from 1935 (in which Ruan Lingyu is filming a scene) to 1991 (in which Maggie Cheung is filming Ruan Lingyu filming a scene).
  • Driven to Suicide: Chi-shan's refusal to marry her, Ta-min's impending lawsuit against her over alimony payments, and above all the humiliation she's suffering over paparazzi coverage of these events, drives Ruan to kill herself.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Given how the opening scene is Maggie Cheung out-of-character talking with Stanley Kwan about how Ruan Lingyu killed herself, there is little mystery about how the film will end.
  • Fun with Subtitles: When Lingyu is filming her death scene from New Women, her director tells her that the titles (it's a silent film) are going to come flying out of her mouth in the finished film. Sure enough, when the Stock Footage clip of the real scene from New Women appears, the Chinese characters for "I WANT REVENGE! I WANT TO LIVE!" come flying out of the real Lingyu's mouth.
  • The Gambling Addict: Ruan's husband Ta-min is a loser who gambles all her money on horses.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: In-Universe, for a scene where Lingyu's character has found her own father dead in the street, in the pouring rain. Studio hands pour fake rain from buckets.
  • Hilarious Outtakes: In-Universe. One of the stock footage clips is Lingyu making faces at a cameraman on the set of Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Ruan takes two lovers over the course of the film. One of them is a wastrel playboy and gambler, who leeches off her and eventually sells her out to the paparazzi. The other is a married man who refuses to leave his wife for her.
  • It Will Never Catch On: One person says that the irregular conflict between China and Japan—which by this point is already serious enough to sometimes include Japanese air raids on Shanghai—couldn't possibly blow up into a general conflict because "The government wouldn't dare wage a full-scale war against the Japs." The Second Sino-Japanese War (the real start of World War II) broke out in 1937.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Used a couple of times, like right at the end where the camera pans across a 1991 photo of the dilapidated remnants of what was once Lienhua Studios.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: As director Cai Chusheng cuts out some of the anti-paparazzi material from his film New Women, something he must do if the film is to be released, a friend comforts him by saying "History will give an account of it." Center Stage, of course, is history doing just that.
  • Life Imitates Art: In-Universe. Ruan's last film (next-to-last in Real Life), New Women, has her playing a character based on actress named Ai Xia, who was hounded into suicide by the relentless glare of the paparazzi. The Shanghai Press Union is so angered by this that they start hounding Ruan relentlessly, reporting about her messy love life, driving her to suicide.
  • The Living Dead: In-Universe. Stanley Kwan calls for a second take because Maggie Cheung, playing the corpse of Ryan Lingyu at Lingyu's memorial service, took a breath.
  • Method Acting: In-Universe. In one scene Cheung-as-Lingyu flings herself to the ground face-first in a snowy courtyard, and sort of scrabbles at the snow for a bit. The next scene is a Stock Footage clip of that very shot in a real Ryan Lingyu movie, proving that Lingyu was rehearsing for her scene the next day.
  • Paparazzi: The gutter press of Shanghai starts chasing Ruan relentlessly after the release of New Women, reporting on her love life, speculating on whether or not her mother was a prostitute like her character in The Goddess. They eventually drive her to suicide.
  • Playing Against Type: In-Universe. When a director at Lienhua starts talking about making more serious films with political content as war with China looms, Lingyu says she wants to play more serious parts rather than just playing "victims" in cheesy melodramas. She demonstrates that she can play such roles by doing nothing more than wiping off her lipstick, and wins a part in Three Modern Women.
  • Postmodernism: It's not just a biopic of Ruan Lingyu, it's a movie about a director and actors and actresses making a movie about Ruan Lingyu. The stars watch Stock Footage clips of the characters and comment about them. In one scene, during the shooting of New Woman where Ruan is drawn up under a bedsheet weeping, the color fades to black and white to signal the audience that the story has moved from 1935 and the set of New Woman to 1991 and the set of Center Stage, with the concerned man leaning across the bed no longer being New Woman director Cai Chusheng, but his 1991 actor, Tony Leung Ka-fai. This trope is then used heavily in the closing scenes of Ruan's funeral, without the Deliberately Monochrome device, when the scene snaps back and forth between actors in character mourning Ruan's death to actors out of character, with Maggie Cheung chatting with production assistants. One scene has the crew assembling and the director calling out "Let's get serious!", before the camera starts rolling and everyone drops into character as mourners at the memorial service. The strangest scene mixes them both, as one actor, in character as a 1930s movie director, talks to the camera about what a nice person Ruan was, while in the background Maggie Cheung is taking deep breaths (she's holding her breath to play a corpse) and makeup artists touch up her face.
  • Shout-Out: Lingyu is compared to Marlene Dietrich, and she is often humming or singing Dietrich's Signature Song "Falling in Love Again", including at the party she goes to the night she kills herself.
  • Silence Is Golden: In-Universe, all of Ruan Lingyu's films are silent, silent film production in China having lasted to the mid-1930s. Towards the end, at a party on the last night of her life, Ruan gives a toast to two Americans who are in town to help the studio install sound recording equipment.
  • Single Tear: Lingyu, in character for a scene in New Women, sheds a single tear as her director urges her to summon up all the grief and despair of her past so she can bring the right intensity to her character's death scene.
  • Stock Footage: Includes clips from surviving Ruan Lingyu films, such as The Goddess, New Women, and Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood. Sometimes clips of Ruan Lingyu scenes are paired with Maggie Cheung recreating those same scenes in-story.
  • Talking Heads: This film is a sort of hybrid which mixes a biopic of Ruan Lingyu's life with elements of a documentary. Director Kwan, Cheung, and the other stars of the film appear onscreen as themselves, sharing their thoughts about Ruan Lingyu's life. Additionally, some people who knew the real Lingyu, including co-star Li Lili, appear onscreen as themselves talking about her life.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry: A brief shot shows Ruan swaying to the music at a nightclub, while her voiceover says "I am happy." Later it's revealed that she has decided to kill herself as soon as she gets home, and she's happy because she's at peace with death.
  • Would Hit a Girl: When Ruan calls her lover Chi-shan an adulterer, he slaps her. This helps her make the decision to kill herself.