“I want to live! I want to retaliate!”
“They are not only destroying my body. They are destroying my soul!”
These heart-wrenching outcries are from the respective protagonists of Center Stage (Stanley Kwan, 1992) and Nina Wu (Midi Z, 2019). CineCina, a Chinese film festival in New York, is screening a double feature of these feminist Chinese language films via its virtual cinema. While these films differ in genres, styles, and contexts; they echo each other as thought-provoking exposés of the historical and systemic misogyny in the film industry and mass media.
Starting earlier this year, CineCina has been one of the first film venues worldwide to present the 4K restoration of Center Stage, the Hong Kong New Wave auteur Stanley Kwan’s classic biopic of Ruan Lingyu. Ruan was China’s most popular silent film actress in the 1930’s, who committed suicide at the age of 25 among the tabloids’ rampant, sensationalistic gossip about her personal life. But her legacy lives on long even after her death, and she has become a household name in China ever since. Ruan is notably played by Maggie Cheung, who is best known for her luscious, mesmerizing on-screen presence in director Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love.
In Center Stage, Cheung’s sentimental, perceptive mirroring of Ruan transforms the film’s realism into a metatextual metaphor of what acting entails for an actress who cannot tell film and real life apart. Cheung’s divine composure and sultry glamour bring Ruan back to life on screen, and in turn anchor this film’s labyrinth-like structure. Kwan interweaves the original footage of Ruan’s silent films, the biographical arc that chronicles her career and life leading up to her suicide, and the group reflections and discussions among the film’s cast behind the scenes. He takes this experimental, hybrid approach of challenging the conventional biopic trope of linear reenactments, in order to invoke the audiences’ own emotive interpretation of Ruan’s femininity and vulnerability, as well as her heart of gold devoted to feminism and activism in the time of sociopolitical turmoil.
On the other hand, a Cannes contender from the Myanmar-born Taiwanese director Midi Z, Nina Wu is his stylized foray into the self-reflexive psychological thriller responding to the “Me Too” movement – co-written by the film’s leading actress Kexi Wu. In light of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse cases in Hollywood, Wu bases this bold screenplay on her own story as an actress in Taiwan – which brutally dissects the contemporary Taiwanese film industry’s mental and sexual exploitation of women from men in power. Midi Z’s potent audiovisuals, saturated with symbolic lighting, construct a nightmarish maze that leads to a downward spiral of insanity. Meanwhile, Wu’s theatrical, larger-than-life portrayal of the film’s protagonist Nina – a mentally tormented actress on the brink of fame – engages the audiences with the traumas both on and off screen.
CineCina’s double feature of Center Stage and Nina Wu blurs the lines between reality and fiction, past and present, while breaking the fourth wall that reflects back on the abuses that women are subject to in the processes of filmmaking and film marketing. Drawing from their own personal emotions, perspectives and experiences, both films’ leading actresses exert another layer of authenticity on the sensitive, provocative narratives that the directors try to tackle.
To watch this double feature, please visit CineCina’s virtual cinema: https://cine-cina.co/2020/09/04/virtual-cinema/