Thursday, December 16, 2010

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Ruan Lingyu & Stanley Kwan at Beijing's BC MOMA

Maggie Cheung as Ruan Lingyu in Stanley Kwan's Centre Stage (1992).

Last week Beijing's sole art house cinema, BC MOMA, hosted a ten day retrospective focussing on China's legendary silent screen actress Ruan Lingyu. On Sunday (December 12) the season drew to a close with a grand finale featuring a live musical accompaniment to Ruan's most famous role as a doomed Shanghai prostitute in The Goddess (1934), followed by Stanley Kwan's 1992 Ruan Lingyu biopic Centre Stage, starring Maggie Cheung. Kwan was on hand to introduce the film and offer some stirring words about the need for greater freedom in China's contemporary film industry.

Although little known in the outside world, Ruan Lingyu remains a national icon in China 75 years after her suicide at age 24. She begun acting in the 1920s at the tender age of 16, but it wasn't until the turn of the 1930s that her career took off as she starred in a string of hits such as A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931), Love and Duty (1931) and Little Toys (1933). Her work culminated with her role as the nameless prostitute in The Goddess (1934) and her portrait of a writer and single mother suffering under the weight of traditional morality and tabloid gossip in New Woman (1934). The latter's unflattering portrait of Shanghai's tabloid press did not endear Ruan to local journalists, who relentlessly pried into her tumultuous personal life and eventually drove the young woman to take her own life with an overdose of sleeping pills on March 8, 1935.

Only six of Ruan's films survive in their entirety, all of which were screened in the BC MOMA season. The final night kicked off with a brief speech from the beautiful Wu Jing, BC MOMA's  programmer, introducing The Goddess and local electronic duo Iloop, on hand to provide the live soundtrack.

BC MOMA programmer Wu Jing introducing electronic duo Iloop at the final night of the Ruan Lingyu retrospective last Sunday (Decemeber 12). All images from the screening Dan Edwards.

Wu Jing and Iloop.

I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of electronic soundtracks for silent films – it always seems a rather clunky way of making old films “relevant” to modern audiences. Great cinema needs no apology and can always stand on it's own terms – it doesn't need to be “updated.” Having said that, Iloop didn't do a bad job of providing a musical backing, and while I didn't think they really added anything to the film, they certainly didn't detract from the experience.

Iloop preparing to do their stuff just before the screening.

The Goddess itself was fantastic. I had seen the film once before on DVD and loved it, so it was great seeing Ruan Lingyu's gorgeously expressive performance blown up to full size on the silver screen. The grim tale of an impoverished young woman selling herself nightly on the streets of Shanghai is striking for its forthrightness and modern style, just as Ruan's nuanced performance is remarkable for its emotive power and realism. Having seen her earlier work Love and Obligation (1931) at the retrospective opening, it was amazing to see how rapidly her acting talent matured in just a few short years – and all the more tragic that her life was cut short so soon after making The Goddess.

It's also sad to reflect on the way China's vibrant cinema of the 1930s and 40s was interrupted by the Communist victory in the Civil War and the subsequent imposition of “socialist realism” on the arts. The filmic arts on the mainland are still struggling to recover today, as Stanley Kwan's comments after The Goddess indicated.

Introducing his Ruan biopic Centre Stage, Kwan recalled his controversial casting of Maggie Cheung in the lead role back in the early 90s. At that point Cheung was regarded as little more than a pretty wallflower within the Hong Kong industry, but her portrayal of Ruan in Centre Stage earned her the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1992 and marked the beginning of her transformation into a serious actress.

Stanley Kwan (left) is introduced by BC MOMA programmer Wu Jing (right) before the screening of Kwan's Centre Stage  on Sunday, December 12. Between Kwan and Wu is a local journalist who interviewed Kwan.

Kwan also remembered that despite the film's success at Berlin, Hong Kong audiences were far from impressed by Centre Stage when it debuted at a Jackie Chan Foundation charity event. According to Kwan, the screening was punctuated by the sound of folding seats as more than half the audience walked out of the 1,000-plus seat cinema before the film's end.

Following this poor reception, the local distributor cut 20 minutes from the film, and didn't even bother preserving the negative of Kwan's original cut. Such were the halcyon days of the early 90s in the Hong Kong film industry.

Kwan's cut of Centre Stage was only rescued form the dustin of history by the Sydney Film Festival, who happened to keep the full-length print that had been sent to them back in the early 90s. A fresh neg was struck from this print when the film was released on DVD a few years ago, and Kwan's version resurfaced after two decades.

Watching Centre Stage today, it's easy to see why mainstream Hong Kong audiences were taken aback when the film was unveiled in 92. Kwan takes a Brechtian approach to portraying Ruan's life, enacting key episodes from the last few years of her life in a series of dramatic vignettes framed by discussions between Kwan and his cast about the actress' life, as well as interviews with elderly survivors of the 1930s Shanghai film industry.

The self-conscious illusionism of the drama does nothing to lessen the film's emotional impact however. Although simplistic interpretations of Brecht's approach stress the creation of an emotional distance between the audience and the drama they're watching, Brecht himself never disavowed an emotional engagement with drama – rather he sought to combine emotion with a critical, reflective attitude in the audience, anchored in an awareness that drama is a representation of reality, rather the illusion of reality. It's a difficult approach to pull of successfully, but when it works it can lead to works of immense emotional and intellectual power.

Centre Stage evokes the tantilising paradox at the heart of our fascination with tragic figures like Ruan Lingyu, as their animated likenesses etched into celluloid bring them back to life, even as the images remind us of the ever-growing temporal distance between the present and the moments recorded on screen. Watching The Goddess, Ruan seems so real, so beautiful, and so alive – but the emotive power of her image only makes the poignancy of her real life death all the more acute.

Part of the melancholy pervading Centre Stage comes from the sense that we can never really know the real Ruan Lingyu, or what really went on between her and her friends, lovers and colleagues all those years ago. All we have are uncertain memories, decaying buildings and degraded movies. The dream-like Shanghai Kwan creates in the film makes it feel like we are looking back into Ruan's life through a window heavily frosted by the passage of time. All we can see are glimpses and hints of a  bigger story that has largely slipped from our grasp.

Stanley Kwan and interpreter Wang Yi at the Q&A before the screening of Centre Stage.

Although many reacted badly when Centre Stage was unveiled in Hong Kong two decades ago, the film's innovative approach recalls the invigorating vein of bold experimentation that ran through the heart of Hong Kong's commercial film industry during its heyday of the 1980s and early 90s. As Kwan commented before the screening, this was a golden era because of it's sheer stylistic and topical diversity. “Now many Hong Kong directors come to the mainland,” he reflected ruefully. “But they have to deal with a long list of banned topics – no scary films, no erotic films, no gay films. They just have to make the best of what's left.”

After a pause Kwan added, “I don't know when we will see the change, but our voice cannot be beaten,” provoking a rousing round of applause from the audience.

Stanley Kwan taking questions from the audience at the Q&A before Centre Stage.

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