Stanley Kwan & The Death Of Ruan Ling-yu

“Woman’s awareness of herself is not defined exclusively by her sexuality: it reflects a situation that depends upon the economic organization of society, which in turn indicates what stage of technical evolution mankind has attained.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1952

Maggie Cheung as Ruan Ling-yu

Critical discourse typically presents a cinematic celebrity or persona, be it that of a performer, director, producer, etc., in binary terms; either in circumstances of fetishization or philosophication.  Even then, in terms of cinematic depictions, the former far succeeds the latter.  Films such as Larry Peerce’s Wired (1989) present this fetishization in the most trivializing and offensive manner, though, in spite of itself, a highly marketable one.  Few films have been able to transcend this exploitative stance on biographical material concerning actors and filmmakers.  Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) is a rare exception.  Unlike most commercial films with similar subjects, Rappaport manages to balance both biographical information with critical investigation.  In Rock Hudson’s Home Movies Eric Farr plays the titular subject, and it is he who walks us through clips collected from Hudson’s filmography and offers us a biographical context, as well as a new perspective with which to view and analyze these selected clips in a context indigenous to the 1990s.  Hence Rappaport’s film tends to be more anthropological than it does anything else.  The approach Rappaport takes towards his subject in terms of technique demands a great deal of the spectator, accounting for why so few have followed in his footsteps outside of the vein of short video essays.  On the surface, Stanley Kwan appears to be marrying both techniques and aesthetics together in his film Actress (1992).  However the cross textual relationship between both sections of Actress complicate such a reading in how one aspect of the film informs the other within a binary complex.  

One part of Actress is set in 1992 and shot on video.  This section charts the legacy of the films subject, Ruan Ling-yu, to varying degrees. The other section of the film follows Maggie Cheung in the part of Ruan Ling-yu reenacting the events that resulted in the famous actress’ suicide in 1935 at the height of her career.  These two different sections are shuffled together, a moment from one section may be echoed in another, and vice versa.  The effect is that Actress is as much about the death of Ruan Ling-yu as it is about how her death shaped her legacy.

Kwan is interested in what Ruan Ling-yu’s persona means and how audiences have come to deal with it.  In American terms one could roughly equate Ruan Ling-yu’s legacy with that of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.  For Kwan there are two kinds of images at work in Actress; the immediate and the abstract.  The abstract images represent the “immortal” aspect of Ruan Ling-yu’s persona.  These images are collected in the film in the 1992 pseudo documentary section, though they are all of the past.  Each of these images are of Ruan Ling-yu herself, either in clips from her films that coincide with Cheung’s reenacting of their production or from old newspaper clippings.  The images here are of Ruan Ling-yu as she once was and has remained, immortalized by the camera, rendered exclusively to the confines of our collective imagination.  The immediate images represent the mortal part of her persona; the flesh and blood.  This is rendered in Cheung’s performance as Ruan Ling-yu in a fabricated reality born out of Kwan’s imagining of her life.  Here the audience emotes with the character of Ruan Ling-yu as it shares in her experiences; an inclusive experience as opposed to the exclusive experience of the other section.  It is also telling that it is the fiction that is more of a reality to an audience than the reality of Ruan Ling-yu remembered and discussed in the documentary section.

Center Stage

That these immediate images consist primarily of Ruan Ling-yu’s domestic life and her life at work at Lianhua Film Company.  In both contexts (home life and work life) the primary concern is with how a woman navigates societal constructs that are male dominated.  Within the depictions of Ling-yu’s work-life it is also important to note that Kwan goes out of his way to show the audience some of the workings of a production that do note concern Ling-yu; there is no narrative agenda or motivation.  What this enables Kwan to do is to reinforce the notion of male dominance.  The film directors, the cameramen, the gaffers, boom operators, etc. are all male, and each has a hand in constructing the filmic image of the Ling-yu character, defining her persona for the public.  Ling-yu’s work is that of a performer, one of emotion and experience.  The juxtaposition of these two types of creative invention or work epitomize the sexual politics of the early thirties, articulating the presumed roles of both sexes within the societal machine.  Scenes that concern Ling-yu’s love life, her adopted daughter and mother, her first husband and so on reiterate the female’s submissive role at home.  Ling-yu’s stoicism, another societal mandate of the time, during these sections suggest that her work as an actress was the only means of an emotional outlet available to her.

The 35mm film contrasted with video is a more visceral representation of binary complexes at work in Actress.  This can be read as an echo of the immediate and the abstract, the then and the now, the real and fantasy, the male and the female.  The manner as well as the content of the documentary style footage is distinctly more female than the 35mm fantasy of Cheung’s reenactment.  In these sections set in the early 90s Kwan points his camera to Ling-yu’s niece, who knew her, as well as Maggie Cheung, who plays her.  We are given two female perspectives of Ruan Ling-yu.  These perspectives also work within a binary complex.  The intimate and the superficial acquaintance, the domestic and the public persona.  Each woman’s testimony compliments as well as contradicts one another at times, rendering Ling-yu as a more complicated abstract; unknowable.  

The 35mm sections of Actress that interrupt and disperse the video section conforms to a more romanticized perspective.  Kwan shows us imagined reality, a past made tangible, if only briefly, through illusion.  Kwan’s masculine gaze is controlled and effective, taking measures never to trivialize the characters.  One could even argue that his homosexuality, his outsider status in China, allows him to relate to Ruan Ling-yu in a very intimate way, identifying with her feelings of suppression.  Regardless, Kwan is allowed a greater selectivity of the images he shows us in this section since the images are born out of his own creativity and not out of another’s reminiscence or conjecture.  

Ultimately, Actress is concerned with Ruan Ling-yu’s death.  Every aspect of the film has been staged or selected by Stanley Kwan to give a context as to why Ling-yu committed suicide as well as to the legacy that she left behind.  This framework exaggerates the multiple binary complexes within the film as well as presents Ruan Ling-yu as an allegorical figure.  In China, the mark of the end of early cinema is often pinpointed with the death of Ling-yu, just as in American cinema this is pinpointed, more or less, by the release of The Jazz Singer (1927).  That Kwan makes this film and frames it in this historical context at the close of the twentieth century has a good deal to do with his later project Yang+Yin (1996).

Actress

Yang+Yin may be a more traditional documentary feature on the history of Chinese cinema, but it represents the same impetus as Actress.  Looking back at China’s cinematic history from the nineties, in both films, Kwan finds constants in the overall character of his national cinema.  In Yang+Yin Kwan examines these constants from the outside, almost anthropologically, while with Actress he looks first at the human catalyst of cinematic art, focusing on the most iconic and renowned of Chinese film stars.   The sense of mortality in both films is essential to their readings.  Kwan sees Ruan Ling-yu in much the same way as he sees the cinema as a whole; a conflict between immediate expression and its impact with the legacy and reappropriation that that work inevitably will assume with the passage of time.  

-Robert Curry

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