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Watching Movie newlight on 09 Mar 2007 08:58 pm

Centre Stage and Chinese cinema

Ruan LingyuI want to praise Edinburgh’s Cinema China 07′s organisers to choose Centre Stage (a.k.a. The Actress) as the opening film. Not only this gives them a good reason to invite Maggie Cheung, of whom I am a fan, to come to the festival, but also this is a fitting opening for a festival that celebrates a century of Chinese cinema.

I first watched this film more than ten years ago in Hong Kong. At that time I was already interested in the history of Chinese cinema and had begin working on my project Chinese Movie Database. The impact of this film on me, looking back now, was that it made me realise that the early (1930s) Chinese films could be attractive and sexy. The beautiful and enigmatic Ruan Lingyu became this focal point of my interest in early Chinese cinema. This film tells the history of the Shanghai era of silent cinema through Ruan Lingyu, with great passion. I guess there must have been some influence from Peggy Chiao, the film producer and critics from Taiwan, who provided the concept of this film. We saw the director and actresses interview the characters they played, and be interviewed. Scenes of the lost films were re-constructed. And when Zhang Damin visited Ruan Lingyu’s new home unexpectedly, I could almost see a glimpse of The Goddess.

Centre Stage (1991) and The Goddess (1934)

The re-enact of the scene in Ruan Lingyu’s masterpiece The Goddess (which will be shown on 12th Mar 7:00pm during Cinema China 07) by Maggie Cheung is possibly the highest homage an actress can pay to the great one. Maggie Cheung broke into international scene after she won the Silver Bear for Best Actress with this film in Berlin, and went on to become an icon of contemporary Chinese cinema. If I am allowed to indulge a bit in superstitution, I would say perhaps she is blessed by the spirit Ruan Lingyu.

In the middle of the film, when the camera panned around the stage of Lianhua Company, the young faces of directors, actors and actress are full of hope and energy. They were singing and playing. They were the household names of that era, pioneers of Chinese cinema. Ruan Lingyu, Li Lili, Li Zhuozhuo, Lin Chuchu,
Chen Yanyan, Jin Yan, Sun Yu, Li Minwei, Wu Yonggang, Fei Mu, Pu Wancang, Cai Chusheng… We will see films made by them, like Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town and Ruan Lingyu’s The Goddess (directed by Wu Yonggang), along with the ones made by several generations after them. After all, Ruan Lingyu and Lianhua are the representatives of the first golden era of Chinese cinema.

Cinema China 07

7 Responses to “Centre Stage and Chinese cinema”

  1. on 09 Mar 2007 at 21:12 1.Chinese Movie Database Blog » Blog Archive » Centre Stage and Chinese cinema said …

    [...] This article first appears on WaterInk. [...]

  2. on 23 Dec 2007 at 05:22 2.Mashup said …

    Having spent a few years in Shanghai shopping at the abundantly stocked DVD shops, I was able to feed an interest in film.

    A frustration was that I did not know where to start with Chinese film. (With Japan in contrast, there were large numbers of subtitled classic DVDs with directors’ names that I recognised.) I will see if I can seek out the two films you mention above. I was wondering if anyone would be kind enough to tell me who are the directors and (subtitled) films that I should seek out?

    On a more polemical point, is it fair to say that Chinese directors cannot challenge the acclaim that their Japanese peers have enjoyed? Or is this just because of neglect born from the historical isolation of China until the 80s?

  3. on 29 Jan 2008 at 17:56 3.newlight said …

    Where to start? That’s a difficult question.

    Except Centre Stage, I can’t think of any other Chinese films about the history of Chinese film industry. In terms of big names, I think you may want to start from Ang Lee. His films are very accessible to Western audiences while still have strong Chinese perspective/philosophy. His early work, like East Drink Man Woman, Pushing Hands are very enjoyable.

    If you like action/martial arts, you want to see Jackie Chan, John Woo, Tsui Hark, and lately Zhang Yimou.

    Or perhaps you can start from this top 10 list:

  4. on 29 Jan 2008 at 18:17 4.newlight said …

    Some Chinese directors have achieve highly acclaimed status internationally, for example Hou Hsiao-Hsien, King Hu.

    But yes, many are not unknown outside China (perhaps inside China as well), and yes one of the reasons is the unavailability of their work. In Cinema China 07, I saw a beautifully digitally transferred The Goddess (1934) http://www.dianying.com/en/title/sn-1934
    but also the single print of Spring in a Small Town (1948) on the verge of being damaged

    Certainly more efforts should be put into preserve classic Chinese films and make them available to wider audiences.

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