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Movie Reviews

The Actress (Ruan Ling-yu)  


Chinese Title: Ruan Ling-yu

Stanley Kwan Director

Maggie Cheung Ruan.................. Ling-yu (Golden Horse)
Carina Lau.................................. Lily Li
Tony Leung Ka Fai...................... Tsai Chu-sheng
Lawrence Ng............................... Chang Ta-Min

Year of release: 1992

Ruan Ling-yu was reputedly China's most famous and adored silent screen actress in the 1920s and 30s, often inviting comparisons with her contemporary Marlene Dietrich. Her private life, in contrast to the characters she chose to play later in her career, was tumultuous and unhappy, her relationships with men often marked with sorrow and uncertainty. The publicity that had built her up proceeded to tear her down, airing her dirty laundry for all to see and read, driving the delicate Ruan to contemplate a very serious action. Stanley Kwan's intention seems not to be just making a movie, but making a statement about the effects of fame and the tragedy of salacious gossip and rumours. At various points during the movie, the actors and the director gather together to discuss how they coped with being celebrities. It was interesting that one of the characters in the movie, director Tsai Chu-sheng, set out to create a movie about the very subject, which outraged the journalists of the day, leading to calls for various restrictions on the film-making industry.

Stanley Kwan's approach to this film is rather interesting: instead of making a straight-out dramatisation of the life of Ruan Lingyu, he also chose to film the actors, their interpretation and opinions on the people that they portrayed. Not only did he film the recreation of scenes from Ruan's films, but where exists, he actually inserts the actual silent film footage, almost as a comparison - stiff competition for Maggie Cheung. The depth of research that Kwan and his team performed looked very exhaustive. They interviewed the biographer of Ruan's life, as well as contemporaries and friends who were still alive during the making of this film. Kwan's respect and compassion for the memory of Ruan is evident, as he often stresses that some of the more dramatic scenes and implied affairs that the actress had was only based on conjecture and circumstantial evidence. Sometimes the line between what is real (that is, the documentary that is made of the actors acting) and what isn't is blurred - there was a scene where Cheung, as Ruan, breaks down uncontrollably after filming a particularly difficult and emotional scene, and Cheung continues to weep after the camera pulls back to reveal Kwan's own film crew and equipment filming that scene. At times, this strange juxtaposition of the real world and the filmed world is perplexing: an actor in character delivers his lines to the camera in a soliloquoy while in the background Kwan's crew is still putting the finishing touches to the scene. And the recreation of silent film acting and techniques look rather antique and almost comical, even if they ARE faithful to the original. But the recreation of 1920s and 30s world that Ruan lived in is complete and immersive. Cheung, in period costume and makeup, acts with such restraint and fragile dignity, that she seems like a completely different person from the real, 1990s Cheung who comes across as an animated, confident and effusive person. Kwan's method of filming almost serves to bring Ruan back to life as a real person, through the Cheung as the medium. She is not only a historical and tragic figure, but one with whom the audience may sympathize with, in spite of all her faults.

It doesn't particularly matter that not many of the actors look like the characters that they represent (Lawrence Ng, as Ruan's first, immature lover, does not wear glasses and looks more robust and sexy than the real Chang Ta-min). While Cheung isn't a spitting image of Ruan (Cheung's features are more delicate, compared to Ruan's large expressive eyes), her embodiment of Ruan's film gestures are spot-on and her ability to slip in and out of emotions is quite freakish to watch. Kwan seems more intent on casting actors who can capture the essence and character of the historical figures. Indeed, Kwan's direction and the cinematography of this film displays a certain flair for dramatisation, by placing Cheung's delicate pale face in a highlighted spot in a dark room, or using filters to convey the mood of a particular scene. I quite enjoyed this mesmerising and interesting movie, especially Cheung's performance and Kwan's approach to portraying the tragic life of a Ruan Ling-yu.

Reviewed by Eden


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