Combustible Celluloid
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With: Maggie Cheung, Chin Han, Lawrence Ng, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Carina Lau, Cecilia Yip, Waise Lee, Paul Chang Chung, Hsiao Hsiang, Maryanna Yip, Yumiko Cheng, Fu Chong, Xue Guoping, Sun Dongguang, Xiao Rongsheng, Zheng Dali, Zhou Jie, Huang Daliang, Claude Monges, Carrie Lanese
Written by: Chiu Kang Chien, based on a story by Peggy Chiao
Directed by: Stanley Kwan
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Cantonese, Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 154
Date: 02/20/1992

Center Stage (1992)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Blue Ruan

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The same year she played Jackie Chan's girlfriend in Supercop: Police Story III and Twin Dragons, Maggie Cheung gave a truly great performance in this groundbreaking biopic, which tells the tragic story of 1930s movie star Ruan Ling-yu. Director Stanley Kwan (Lan Yu) tells the beautifully-decorated story in chronological order, charting her rise to fame, the shape of her career, and then her suicide at age 24 in the midst of a scandal. He uses clips of Ruan's original silent films, sometimes battered scenes of films that no longer exist. (The Goddess is one that happily does still exist.) Even more intriguing, there are modern-day sequences of Kwan, Cheung, and others (including a still-living Lily Li, who worked alongside the real Ruan) discussing what it all means. (Imagine scenes of Rami Malek, say, talking about Freddie Mercury in the middle of Bohemian Rhapsody.)

By calling attention to the process of making a movie about a movie star, Center Stage — which was also released as Actress — deepens its sense of history. Cheung is dazzling, especially when Ruan tries to copy Marlene Dietrich's moves. The film also stars Tony Leung Ka-fai (Ashes of Time, Election, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) and Carina Lau (Project A II, Days of Being Wild, Flowers of Shanghai). Film Movement released a gorgeously restored transfer of the film on Blu-ray in 2021 for its 30th anniversary. It includes a brief, new introduction by Kwan, an archival interview with Kwan and Hong Kong cinema expert Paul Fonoroff, plus a 16-page liner notes booklet.

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