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By Joe Bendel. She was one the biggest stars of her generation but the press was out to get her. Eerily, Ruan Lingyu’s short life paralleled the trajectories of her most tragic roles. Her career was marked by scandal, making her story a natural for big screen adaptation. Mixing narrative with documentary snippets, Stanley Kwan sympathetically profiles Ruan in Center Stage, which fittingly concludes the Asia Society’s Goddess film series tomorrow.

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There are two divas in Stage, Ruan and Lily Li, played by two divas of a later generation: Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau, respectively. A gifted actress, Ruan is often called the Greta Garbo of Republican China. She gained fame as a romantic heroine, but is now best remembered for her more politically charged films. Unfortunately, she fell for the wrong man at an early age. Arguably, it was a mistake Ruan significantly repeated once, perhaps twice. Ultimately, her ne’er do well ex would serve as the media’s willing tool.

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Stage can be quite maddening, because it recreates scenes from many of Ruan’s films that are now considered lost. Many of them look like they were really darn good, but we can only hope they eventually turn up in a mysterious film vault someplace. Naturally, Kwan also gives the audience a behind-the-scenes look at the surviving classics, Goddess and New Women, which kicked off the Asia Society’s retrospective last month.

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Cheung is not a bad likeness for Ruan, perfectly expressing her brittle vulnerability. Her Ruan struggles to maintain a placid façade, but she obviously feels the sleights of others on a very deep level. Indeed, screenwriter Peggy Chiao clearly ascribes a great deal of her success as an actress to her remarkable empathy. It is a star turn from Cheung, justly awarded best actress at the 42nd Berlinale.

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Kwan’s talking head segments, both archival and original black-and-white interviews with cast and crew, give the film a stop-and-start rhythm that can be distracting. Still, much of this commentary is rather interesting stuff, including the final sit-down granted by Li Lily, Ruan’s friend and fellow diva (represented in the Goddess series with Daybreak). Cheung’s sympathetic take on Ruan adds an intriguing meta-dimension to the film. Her candid segments also serve as a reminder how striking she is, considering how pale and drawn she often looks when appearing in character as Ruan.

At well over two and a half hours, Stage truly brims with ambition. Sort of the HK equivalent of Jessica Lange’s Frances Farmer bio-pic, it is a finely crafted period production that should satisfy Ruan’s fans with its earnest ardor for their star. Viewers will come to feel like they understand the exquisitely morose idol, yet suspect there is something about her that will always remain unknowable. Anchored by a great lead performance, Center Stage is highly recommended for fans of Ruan, Cheung, and Hong Kong cinema in general when it screens tomorrow (12/8), wrapping up the Goddess film series at the Asia Society.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on December 7th, 2012 at 11:09am.

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