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Nashville Scene Imitation of Life

Hong Kong film offers complex, multileveled meditation on an unrecoverable past

By Jim Ridley

JULY 17, 2000:  Three years ago, Film Comment magazine triggered a movie-geek avalanche when it polled a roster of film programmers, distributors, and critics on a simple question: What were the best movies of the 1990s that hadn't been released in America?

To make things simpler, or so they thought, the editors ruled out English-language or American films, figuring those had a better shot at distribution. Even so, the respondents came up with a list of 150 movies that were all but unseen by American audiences. The article sparked (or shamed) distributors into picking up several films on the list, but tracking down most of the films became a sort of rotisserie sport for hardcore movie nuts--the way baseball-card fanatics or comic-book collectors keep checklists of obscure players or series.

The idea of glassy-eyed cinephiles trolling the aisles of Asian grocery stores or back-alley bootleggers is pretty funny. What keeps this quest from becoming another exercise in geeky one-upmanship is the quality of the movies. Of the top 20 films, I've only managed to find about six. But those six were diverse and exciting enough to juice me with the collector's bug Finding these movies (which included John Woo's Vietnam epic Bullet in the Head and Leos Carax's Les Amants du Pont Neuf) adds a thrill of discovery that makes them that much more precious. At the same time, their very obscurity raises a troubling afterthought If something this good can get discarded in the year-to-year, decade-to-decade shuffle of movies, what else out there is lost?

One such MIA movie is Actress, a 1992 biopic by Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan. On the Film Comment list, ranked by vote, Actress clocks in at No. 19. Yet its lost-in-the-supermarket status deepens its mysterious poignancy. A hard-to-describe hybrid of documentary, biography, and costume drama, Actress is as much about the vanishing of the early 20th century as about the irretrievable loss of the era's photographic records. For the movie itself to be outside the reach of most viewers, so comparatively soon after its making, is a cruel irony.

Actress, at its most basic level, is a screen biography of Ruan Ling-yu, a stunning film star of the 1930s who was dubbed "the Greta Garbo of Chinese cinema." Molded by male directors, Ruan made her mark playing glamorous "noble" roles; even though her own upbringing was humble, she had to beg to play the prostitutes and working-class heroines of the Shanghai film industry's evolving slate of socially conscious films. But her eventual success in those roles didn't shield her from the gutter press, which pounced on the possibility that she was having an adulterous affair. In 1935, she committed suicide at the height of her beauty and fame. She was 25 years old.

If Actress had simply filled in the sketchy details of Ruan's life--a doomed marriage to a cheating, gambling wastrel (Tony Leung Ka Fai), an affair with a mogul that eventually claimed her career and reputation--it would've made an engrossing high-gloss soap. Instead, director Kwan had the inspiration to present the fragments of Ruan's life in fragments. The movie thus alternates black-and-white Super 8 interviews of Ruan's contemporaries with sumptuous, color-saturated depictions of the tango bars and steamy backrooms of 1930s Shanghai. The effect, as the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, makes the imagined past more vivid than the grainy present.

Adding to the poetic displacement of past and present is the casting of Maggie Cheung as Ruan. Cheung, a former beauty queen, started out as an ingenue in Jackie Chan's mid-1980s Hong Kong action epics (Chan coproduced Actress); she's perhaps best known to American audiences for the astounding martial-arts fantasy The Heroic Trio. Despite getting parts in early films by Kwan and Wong Kar-wai, though, she had a hard time breaking out of glossy, frivolous roles: According to Rosenbaum, she was a last-minute replacement in Actress for the less "lightweight" Mainland actress Anita Mui. The movie opens with a series of Ruan's production stills, over which Kwan describes the way she was typecast and held back as an actress. When he cuts to Cheung, the modern-day actress wryly observes, "Isn't she a replica of myself?"

Well, yes and no. The difference between Cheung and the real-life Ruan is part of the movie's complex, multileveled depiction of the relationship between the past and the present. Cheung's luminous full-moon face and cool contemporary poise don't match the "real" Ruan, who's shown in silvery scraps from her 1930s films. Instead of downplaying the difference, though, Kwan uses it to convey how little we know about Ruan apart from her film image: Just because we know how she looks doesn't mean we know her. Tellingly, Cheung is introduced not as Ruan but as herself discussing the role with Kwan. We're never meant to think of her as a substitute for the real person, just a thoughtful approximation.

That extends to Kwan's recreations of Ruan's films, many of which have been lost forever. In one scene, he cuts from Cheung as Ruan preparing for her role in 1930's Wayside Flowers to Cheung as Ruan reenacting the film. To emphasize the difference between the two actresses, and between present and past, he cuts from a close-up of Cheung's gorgeous suffering face to a shot of the actual Ruan receding into the shadows; it's as if the Chinese Garbo were refusing to let us see any more of her, wanting to be alone. When Kwan stages reenactments of the early films, only to stamp them with the legend "Film no longer available," he mourns more than just the loss of the celluloid; he commemorates another piece of our past that will forever remain a mystery.

So much of our sense of the immediate and distant past comes from the imaginings of filmmakers. We hear Woodward and Bernstein; we think Redford and Hoffman. We picture the Reconstruction era in the grainy images of D.W. Griffith, and the parting of the Red Sea in run-of-DeMille Technicolor. In some cases, as newsreels and silent films crumble into dust every year, the vestiges of remembered images are all that's left. Watching the awkwardly "reconstructed" four-hour cut of Erich von Stroheim's mutilated Greed on TCM last year, you were left with a glimpse of artistic glory that might have been--and the fistfuls of dust that represent an evaporated, unrecoverable past. Actress tantalizes us with pieces of that past and the sense of what we've lost. Ironically, the print that will show in Nashville is already significantly shorter than the 166-minute Asian version; the cut scenes reportedly show discussions between Maggie Cheung and Stanley Kwan--precisely the kind of archival footage we'll never see of Ruan Ling-yu. Yet even this version is worth seeing--while you have the chance, before it too is gone.

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