Director: Stanley Kwan
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
China, the 1930s and Hong Kong, the 1990s. An unconventional biopic of the Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, composed of photographic stills, interviews and filmed recreations of aspects of her life. In 1929, she is cast as a prostitute in ‘Reminisces of Peking’, her breakout role. Lingyu is then cast in the 1930 film ‘Wayside Flowers’, the filming of which is contrasted with discussions between Stanley Kwan and Maggie Cheung about this film and the life (and death) of the actress. Ruan Lingyu starts a relationship with Chang Ta Min, who seems interested in sponging off her growing wealth. Shanghai is invaded by Japan. Film production moved to Hong Kong. Lingyu collaborated with a number of leftist, progressive film makers, offering more challenging roles to the actress; the first of which was ‘Three Modern Women’. Lingyu then separates from Chang Ta Min and starts a relationship with a wealthy businessman, Tang Chi-Shan. During the filming of ‘New Women, her penultimate film, Lingyu has an increasing number of onset breakdowns as her private life becomes public knowledge. ‘New Women’ is responsible for a press backlash against Lingyu because it openly criticises their profession, and cuts are ordered of the film. Chang Ta Min then sues Lingyu for adultery. Life imitates art as Lingyu commits suicide shortly after, with press intrusion cited as the main reason, just as it was for the suicide of the heroine of ‘New Women’.
Of the numerous auteurs from the Chinese diaspora (Zhang Yimou, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Wong Kar-Wai, Edward Yang et al), Stanley Kwan is possibly the most overlooked. Few of his films will have been seen in the West, with Kwan being another example of how many interesting directors are poorly distributed though one hopes that might ultimately be redressed. His 1987 film ‘Rouge’ possibly remains his most well known film, a haunting ghost story about lovers separated and lost over time, capturing how our perceptions of love have barely changed in the intervening decades. The esteemed film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum on the other hand is a serious advocate of ‘The Actress’ as not just Kwan’s best film but possibly the best of all films ever to emerge from Hong Kong. Although there are numerous other candidates one might offer instead, it is simple to see how Rosenbaum has come to this conclusion.
The strongest aspect of ‘The Actress’ is that it reconstructs the genre it belongs to. Although it is nominally a biopic, it is certainly amongst the most unconventional biopics one is likely to see. Kwan is not concerned with merely recounting the life of Ruan Lingyu. Instead he wishes to consider other themes; the nature of Chinese cinema during the 1930s and the 1990s (unsurprisingly commercial interests predominate during both eras), the responsibility of the press, public and private lives etc. Kwan uses numerous techniques and perspectives to construct his film, starting with black and white stills of the actress herself. Whilst he recreates Lingyu’s life with himself directing Cheung as the actress, he alternates these scenes with interviews with those who knew Lingyu during her life, interviews between himself and the actors in this film, as well as scenes for Lingyu’s own films. Consequently, ‘The Actress’ does not follow a linear path, shifting between the past and present numerous times. Kwan’s motives for making the film are to create a tribute to the actress known as the ‘Chinese Garbo’ rather than a definitive account of her life, and ‘The Actress’ works all the better for it.
Kwan understands that the rise of Lingyu’s career corresponded with the rise of Chinese cinema as a serious form of art. Her breakout film ‘Reminisces of Peking’ was the start of a wave of leftist film making. Lingyu was often cast as more independently-minded women struggling against social pressures; the most well known of these was as the eponymous and ironically titled ‘Goddess’ in 1934 where Lingyu was a kind-hearted prostitute trying to do the best for her son. The challenging roles she played on screen added to the intense pressures she endured in her private life, culminating in the collision of public/private lives in her penultimate film ‘New Women’. Lingyu was sadly unable to disassociate herself from her film roles. There was suggestion that the breakdowns as depicted by Maggie Cheung in the film had their own autobiographical element; that she herself was undergoing relationship difficulties at the time. Cheung herself mirrored Lingyu’s career to some extent. Both began performing throwaway roles in rather ordinary films. ‘The Actress’ was the moment at which Cheung was taken seriously as an actress, and she is arguably the finest actress of her generation, having undertaken leading roles in several Wong Kar Wai films.
During his recreation of Lingyu’s life, Kwan remains true to the cinematic techniques of the time, filming by the standards of the 1930s. This includes melodramatic acting, actors’ faces painted white for the benefit of the camera and Kwan filming the making of a film. Kwan also has a tendency to film Cheung through doors or windows or behind bars. This “looking in” perspective demonstrates her entrapment and Kwan does so with great sympathy and subtlety. The imagery is never heavy-handed. Interestingly, Kwan does not linger with the details about her suicide, shown only as Cheung ‘performing’ her suicide. This might be because the film is intended as a tribute rather than morbid reflection. There is no need to reflect upon the massive cultural impact her death had. ‘The Actress’ remains a sorely neglected film, seldom seen because of poor distribution but a remarkable elegy to one of the greatest actresses in world cinema overseen by a director at the peak of his creative powers.