Centre Stage (1992)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-10-30
Summary: A terrific movie/movie

Since that is out of the way—“Centre Stage” is a wonderful movie that repays repeated viewings. A seamless combination of at least three levels of making and looking at film, including plenty of commentary on how an audience looks at movies. It has preserved footage of Ruan Ling-Yu contained in and foregrounded by a faux-documentary on the making of “Centre Stage” which is itself bounded by the “real” movie of “Centre Stage”.

A lot is possible within this structure and Stanley Kwan makes a lot of it. While his movie is imperfect, as it must be, it is still an astounding work of art that can be enjoyed on many levels. Much of the art (or craft, if you will) of filmmaking is on display here, often in self-conscious, almost blatant ways. One example is the scene in which Maggie, as Ruan, first encounters Tony Leung, playing Choi Choh Sang, the director. It is an arresting shot, beautifully framed and lit—an obvious (and obviously staged) piece of bravura cinematography. The scene begins with Maggie on a set of stairs. Tony appears on a landing at the top of the flight of stairs and tells her that he wants her to star in his next film. After a bit of character establishing dialog, Maggie is left on the stairs, standing a bit less than halfway up the flight. The upward angle of the staircase is repeated and emphasized by a double railing which is like a very dark, almost black slash across the middle of the frame. Behind this are two very large squares of pastel light which overshadowed Maggie but did not dominate either her or the composition. It was a superbly balanced shot that helped express Ruan’s indecision at that particular point—whether to throw in her lot with the talented but broke Choi or not. She hesitates, starts back down the stairs for a moment and then turns and goes up.

Another intriguing sequence is the wake and funeral of Ruan Ling-Yu. It could have been different versions of the same scene, each version using various arrangements of actors and camera position to achieve some startlingly different emotional response and narrative structure. The wake and funeral seems to take a long time because it does take a long time—it is shown several times as what we are seeing on the screen slips between the faux-documentary and the movie itself. Earlier, Maggie as Ruan bursts into tears at the end of her death scene—we assume that it is relief over finally being done with the scene. She is bullied by the director, having to run the scene over and over with essentially no direction—just being told to do better, let the emotion come through, act with your eyes, etc. But this assumption of simply professional relief is undercut when Maggie (playing Maggie) also begins crying after the death scene, possibly overcome with the emotion of what she is portraying. Or possibly not—her weeping may have been simply part of one level of the movie that leaked over into another. This is indicated when the voice of the director (off screen) is heard saying, “You forgot to cover up Maggie that time, Kai Wah,” which completely pierces the cinematic fourth wall and puts the audience in the middle of the minutia of shooting a scene.

Maggie dominates the movie—possibly to me more than others—but both Carina Lau and Cecilia Yip are able to hold their own in scenes with her. There is a sequence in which Maggie as Ruan describes and illustrates to Carina Lau as Lily Li how she painted her eyebrows for a prior film. Li is a young actress who seems to idolize Raun and who is thrilled to have a small part in a movie with her but who also, based on her looks and poise, is ready and willing to unseat Ruan as the current goddess of Chinese cinema. There is a palpable undercurrent of tension beneath the oh-so-polite discussion but Ruan effortlessly keeps the focus where she thinks it should belong—on herself.

The movie/movie or meta-movie genre consists of films that acknowledge that they are constructions and not the windows into actual events that most movies pretend to be. Included in this category are movies set in centers of film production, movies about moviemaking and movies where someone appears "as himself".

“Centre Stage” is as good a movie about movies as you will find and can be compared with such classics as Altman’s “The Player”, Fellini’s 8 ½, Stanley Donen’s “Singing in the Rain", David Mamet’s “State and Main" as a meta-movie. It has as many layers and self-referential nuances as do they and, from what I have read, is also full of allusions to the history of Chinese filmmaking.

Highly recommended.
Reviewer Score: 9