Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000

Dir: Stanley Kwan

Centre Stage (a.k.a. Actress)
(International Version) (Ruanlingyu)

B/W & Colour, 146mins, Mandarin/Cantonese,
Hong Kong, 1991.
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau

Centre Stage is available from Chinatown video
stores as well as mainstream English-language
local video stores in Australia.

review essay by Brett Farmer

    Mémoire en Abîme: Remembering (through) Centre Stage

  1. In his 1925 essay, 'A Note Upon the "Mystic Writing-Pad,"'[1] Freud offers a pithy, yet surprisingly affecting metaphor through which to think the evanescent operations of memory. Using as an analagous example the classic children's toy of the essay title in which marks are inscribed on a wax background and then 'mystically' erased by lifting the plastic cover sheet, Freud suggests that memory should be thought of as a form of imaginary palimpsest where mnemic impressions emerge, merge, and re(e)merge through variable processes of transmutable layering. The 'appearance and disappearance' of the ludic etchings on the magic writing pad are similar, he suggests, to 'the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness' in memory.[2]
  2. Notwithstanding Derrida's interpretation of it as a triumphant model of the primacy of writing,[3] I have always found Freud's reading of memory in this essay suggestively cinematic. Its central invocation of the visual as a key element of mnemonic production (as Mary Ann Doane notes, 'the Mystic Writing-Pad is, after all, a child's toy' and is, thus, most 'likely to receive iconic representations.'[4]), and its characterisation of memory as constituted through a process of continuous movement (a process of, precisely, moving pictures) evoke an insistently cinematic parallel; as does the rhetorical appeal to notions of magic. What is film, after all, if not the home of mysticism in the modern age? Furthermore, the manifold allusions in the essay to 'projections', 'dissolves', 'wipes' and 'flickering' perceptions bespeak what could only be described as a veritable metaphorics of cinematic technique.
  3. Though Freud does not make the connection, the cinema has in fact long been considered a privileged space in contemporary culture for the production and dissemination of memory, or what Pierre Nora terms 'un lieu de mémoire'.[5] The high degree of mimetic verisimilitude in film and the seemingly inexhaustible drive of the movie camera to record all that is set before its voracious eye endow cinema with an unparalleled capacity to retain, store and re-present signs from the past. Like a form of prosthetic memory, cinema offers the promise of historical memorialisation, documenting and preserving aural and visual traces from history for rememberings in the present and future. Yet, cinema equally works to alter the conditions and effects of memory. The immediacy and stunning authenticity of the cinematic image, the fact that it appears not just to recall but to reanimate its referent, disrupts the fixity of historical time, literally bringing alive the past in the present of the screening. While the encyclopaedic cataloguing of film, its ever-expanding production of an instantly available archive of historical documents, makes the past accessible in ever more direct ways. Cinema has thus helped produce the (post)modern condition of what Matt Matsuda terms 'accelerated memory', 'a relentless telescoping of time in which the boundaries between past and present appear to dissolve.'[6]
  4. One film from the recent cinematic past that plays on the potential of cinema for the staging of an accelerated memory, and a film that, not incidentally, has come to haunt my own (cinematic) rememberings, is Stanley Kwan's Centre Stage (1991, a.k.a. Ruan Ling-yu and Actress). A highly stylised biopic based on the life of the legendary Chinese silent film star, Ruan Ling-yu, Centre Stage offers a spectacular and singularly self-aware meditation on the transmutable dynamics of cinematic memory. Rigorously eclectic in terms of style and content, the film is organised around a complex structure of parallel cross-cutting that shifts continuously between the biography of Ruan, depicted through both original historical material and fictive reconstruction, and a cinéma-vérité representation of the Centre Stage cast and crew at work on their dramatisation of the Ruan legend in the present day. The result is a dizzying vortex of both spatial and temporal drift that serves as a veritable cinematic exemplum of Freud's metaphoric reading of memory as a mystical writing-pad.
  5. Significantly, the organizational fulcrum around which the whirling textual eddies of Centre Stage flow is the iridescent figure of the movie star. More than any other element of the cinematic universe, it is perhaps the star that enshrines film's greatest capacity for mnemonic displacement. Its kaleidoscopic intertextuality and multiform repetitions imbue the star with a radical semiosis, an unstoppable sliding of metonymic signifiers, while its extreme social mythologisation fuels an equally high density of ideological and affective connotativeness. To engage the cinematic star is to be hurled into a prismatic network of wavering meanings drawn not only from the myriad representations that make up the star persona but from the even more idiosyncratic field of subjective history: the variable ways in which a star is made meaningful by and for individual viewers, the feelings, desires, associations evoked by a given star. In relation to the latter, because stars are such intense figures of subjective identification and fantasy, they frequently function as resonant sites of what Jackie Stacey calls 'iconic memory', the production of an intensely personal form of remembering through the treasured image of a cinematic star. According to Stacey, this process of star-based remembering often assumes 'the form of a particular frozen moment, taken out of its temporal context and captured as "pure image"', hence the term, 'iconic memory'. It is a process that, importantly, serves to retain and repeat not only 'memories of the stars, but also of the spectators' memories of themselves.'[7]
  6. From the start, Centre Stage positions itself squarely within the spectacular space of star-driven iconic memory. As the film opens, a series of monochromatic stills of Ruan Ling-yu flash on the screen, grainy with age but clearly revealing the charismatic beauty of their subject. A male voice-over explains that the stills are from some of Ruan's earliest films, many of which have been lost to time. This revelation piques an immediate sense of pathos that pervades the text as a whole, but it also establishes the film's primary thematic interest in cinematic memory, loss and recovery. As all that remains of Ruan's early films, these fragile photos are a literalisation of iconic memory at work, frozen images that are marshalled to signify well beyond their immediate meanings and to bear a wealth of variable associations.
  7. The fact that the voice-over accompanying these images belongs to the director of Centre Stage, Stanley Kwan, further intensifies the sequence's affective resonances and its articulation of a specifically cinematic form of memory work. A profoundly personal filmmaker, Kwan is well known for his fascination with Chinese cinematic history, in general, and female stardom, in particular. Dubbed by Western critics 'the Cukor of Hong Kong', Kwan has developed and explored this fascination across an extraordinarily diverse oeuvre that ranges from documentary shorts and music videos to baroque cinematic melodramas. In the case of Centre Stage, Kwan is open about the fact that the film was inspired by his personal enchantment with Ruan. In a disarmingly candid scene early in the film, Kwan is shown discussing his enthusiasm for Ruan with some of his cast members. He admits that, at first, he was relatively indifferent to the cult of Ruan but, after seeing her films on screen for the first time, he became instantly entranced. Bubbling with obvious delight, he enthuses over Ruan's air of sensual glamour and even goes so far as to imitate some of her gestures and expressions. Yet, if Centre Stage is Kwan's personal homage to Ruan, it is less in the sense of a retelling of her biographical story and more in the form of an evocation of her legend as cinematic past. 'I wasn't interested in [biographical details such as] Ruan's love affairs,' Kwan asserts in interview, 'but in recovering the golden age of Chinese cinema.'[8] Like a latter-day conjuror, Kwan uses Centre Stage to reanimate the spectre of the cinematic past in and for the present, giving it new life and meaning through the mythologized figure of a legendary star.
  8. There are, however, not one but two stars in Centre Stage. Ruan Ling-yu may be the star of the film's (remembered) past, but Maggie Cheung is undoubtedly the star of its (textual) present. The fact that she plays Ruan in the dramatic reconstructions that constitute the bulk of the film, while also appearing as herself in the contemporary cinéma-vérité sequences, means that Cheung is inscribed twofold in the text's discourses of stardom and she, thus, becomes an inevitable focus for its thematics of star-based memory and desire. Cheung's status as a privileged repository for star memories is made apparent, again, in the film's opening sequence. At the end of the photo montage that opens the film, there is a striking cut from a black and white close-up still of Ruan to a full-colour shot of Cheung who is sitting looking down off-screen at what are presumably the photographs shown in the preceding sequence. The use of a carefully staged graphic match across these two shots (they are identical in scale, framing, and composition) works to fuse them together, alerting the viewer to the fact that Cheung will be playing Ruan in the film while also imbuing her with the full weight of cinematic historicity and memory evoked so powerfully in the preceding montage.

    As if to offer a verbal confirmation of this metonymic equation, Cheung looks up from the photographs of Ruan and exclaims in astonished amusement, 'Isn't she a replica of myself?'
  9. This movement of echoic repetition between and across the star images of Ruan and Cheung forms a central motif that is deployed right throughout the film. There are numerous sequences where shots of Ruan from her original films are conjoined with shots of Cheung replicating the exact same scenes in the present tense of the narrative which, in turn, are intercut with further shots of Cheung 'breaking out of character' and engaging with other members of the film crew on set. The effect of such moments is a profound uncanniness that is inspired in part by the unsettling dissolution of orthodox categorical boundaries (boundaries between past and present, original and copy, reality and fiction) and, in equal part, by the startling simulation in these sequences of star-based accelerated memory. The sliding movement in these scenes across disjunctive registers of time, space, and being is an articulation at the textual level of the dynamics of fluid drift that characterise the operations of memory, in general, and star memories, in particular. Like a cinematic mystic writing pad or, perhaps, a celluloid pentimento, these sequences blend competing star images and performances into new formations of hybridised meaning and desire.
  10. Other moments in the film achieve similar effects through a strategic deployment of intertextual star citation. There are constant passing allusions throughout Centre Stage to various iconic star images of both Chinese and Hollywood classic cinema. Apart from the obvious references to some of Ruan's contemporaries such as Li Lily, Chen Yanyan and Zhang Zhiyun, there are multiple examples of casual star intertextuality in Centre Stage.

    These range from the explicit, such as the various references in the film to Ruan as 'the Chinese Garbo' or the scene where Ruan (Cheung) is shown imitating Marlene Dietrich, to the implicit, such as the extended melodramatic sequence early in the film where Ruan (Cheung) is lying bereft in the snow as she shoots a scene from Flowers (1930) that inspires marked associations with Lillian Gish and the legendary ice floe sequence in Way Down East (1920). There are many scenes where Ruan smokes a cigarette with deliberate femme fatale grandiloquence evoking memories of a raft of early cinematic 'bad women' from Theda Bara to Anna May Wong. Within this context, one could also cite the presence of Maggie Cheung in the film, one of the most successful of all contemporary Hong Kong stars, and how this inevitably imports a slew of further intertextual associations. Indeed, given that Cheung is in fact appearing as herself in many of the scenes, her star oeuvre and biography become integral components of the text's complex signifying system. Watching Cheung in the cinéma-vérité sequences, for example, where she is being directed by Kwan, who clearly adores her and whose camera so obviously celebrates her extraordinary beauty, one can't help but recall their other collaborative efforts such as Full Moon in New York (1989) and Too Happy for Words (1992). It is of course difficult to know if such references are the effect of a strategic encoding in the film or simply variable associations projected onto the text by viewers, but in many ways this is precisely the point. Any film, but particularly a film like Centre Stage, that trades so openly on the intertextual constructs of stardom will always invite diverse reading effects because of the infinitely variable ways that cinema can and does key into histories and memories.
  11. Jean Epstein has famously argued that the magic of cinema lies in its ability to evoke a form of intense affectivity that he terms 'photogénie'. While claiming it to be ultimately indefinable, Epstein locates photogénie in cinema's unique capacity for temporal displacement. 'The photogenic aspect is a component of space-time variables,' [9] he writes. 'Today is a yesterday, perhaps old, that brings in the back door a tomorrow, perhaps far-away.... Cinema is the only art that can represent this ... as it is.'[10] With its fluid movements between the cinematic past and present and its spiralling webs of star-based memories, Centre Stage offers a stunning evocation of this filmic achronicity writ large. Bursting wide the orthodox, mortal constraints of time and space, it impels its viewer into the uncanny world of cinematic memory where history rushes to meet the future and phantom images appear in unpredictable formations. That such an excess of mnemonic displacement can provoke intense anxiety is hardly surprising; as one critic complains, the film can seem 'experientially overwhelming and emotionally distancing.'[11] Yet, Centre Stage can equally inspire the most exquisite form of photogénie, the ineffable rapture that comes in those sublime moments when cinema catches us by surprise and moves us to remember...and remember anew.


    [1] Sigmund Freud, 'A Note Upon the 'Mystic Writing-Pad'', Pelican Freud Library Vol. 11: On Metapsychology, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

    [2] Freud, 'A Note Upon the 'Mystic Writing-Pad'', Pelican Freud Library Vol. 11: On Metapsychology, p. 433.

    [3] Jacques Derrida, 'Freud and the Scene of Writing,' Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

    [4] Mary Ann Doane, 'Temporality, Storage, Legibility: Freud, Marey, and the Cinema,' Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories, ed. Janet Bergstrom, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, p. 62.

    [5] Pierre Nora, 'Between History and Memory: Les Lieux de mémoire,' Representations 26, (spring 1989).

    [6] Matt K. Matsuda, The Memory of the Modern, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 166.

    [7] Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, London: Routledge, 1994, p. 67.

    [8] Berenice Reynaud, 'Glamour and suffering: Gong Li and the history of Chinese stars,' Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, eds. Pam Cook and Philip Dodd, Philadelphia; Tempule University Press, 1993, p. 28.

    [9] Jean Epstein, Ecrits sur le Cinema, 1921-1953, Paris: Seghers, 1974, p. 140.

    [10] Epstein, Ecrits sur le Cinema, 1921-1953 Paris: Seghers, 1974, pp. 179-80.

    [11] Y. Teh, 'Review of Centre Stage.', accessed 15 August 2000.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 15 April 2008 1328 by: Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright