melodramatic style and reflexivity
Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage (1992) revisits the life and suicide of iconic 1930s Chinese melodrama star Ruan Lingyu, and yet Kwan’s own melodrama is not structured to be a nostalgic recreation of the actress’s films. Instead, Kwan echoes the distinct style of 1950s Hollywood melodrama director Douglas Sirk, borrowing his dramatic camera movements and decadent visual style in Centre Stage, which offers a more critical and emotional experience than the films that Lingyu starred in during her lifetime.
Through the analysis of several texts that describe the context and aesthetics of early Chinese melodramatic cinema in Shanghai, the specific meanings behind Sirk’s style, as well as the purpose of Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage, it is evident that Kwan borrows aesthetics commonly used by Sirk as they accurately reflect the central theme of the film. Ultimately, this essay will assert that Kwan makes use of Sirkian techniques in Centre Stage, as opposed to imitating the aesthetics of the Shanghai melodramas of the plots time period, as Sirk’s distinct style constructs a reflexive narrative which presses the audience to critically and emotionally engage with their pre-conceived image of the film’s protagonist.
In order to completely analyze why Sirk’s visual style is more functional for Kwan’s Centre Stage, it is necessary to first discuss the historical context of the film’s narrative, as well as the style of early 1930s Shanghai melodramas, which the film is structured around. The melodramas of actress Ruan Lingyu’s era were populist leaning, and their narratives were centered on the experiences of China’s citizens, particularly women. Paul Williams refers to Lingyu’s role as a representation of innocent Chinese citizens when quoting Meyer, who states, “Ruan, as in many of her films, is the symbol of China’s suffering.” (282), explaining how these films were about the lives of average, disenfranchised citizens. Essentially, Lingyu’s films, along with many of the films of her era, are marked by their connection to social issues and the way they highlighted the plight of the people. It is evident that these films are heavily focused on a national mythology surrounding the experiences of the poor and suffering in China, constructing dramatized versions of what is actually experienced in order to reinforce their innocence and victimization.
Because Chinese melodramas of Ruan Lingyu’s period heavily communicated the purity of poor Chinese citizens, these films constructed their mise-en-scène and presented concepts in a way that still represented the world as the audience at the time would have experienced it. Directors of this era were very focused on presenting a familiar image, and their films are recognizable for their aesthetics of experience, built out of traditional culture, as well as the tangible modern culture of the era (Zhang 42). Miriam Hansen highlights how the films of this time were reactionary to the lives of its audience, stating, “Shanghai films respond to the pressures of modernity in their thematic concerns…” (p. 14), describing how melodramas being produced in Shanghai in the 1930s was essentially concerned with the lived experiences of Chinese citizens during a time of growing modernity. Zhen Zhang elaborates on the common visual themes used by directors of the period, stating, “It brings us a new perception of the world, one in which physicality is recreated, rather than revealed…” (42), explaining that this visual style does not seek to introduce a new perspective on prevailing worldviews, but rather present collected cultural values and show them as they already exist to the audience. This is not to say that the aesthetics and themes of this era were entirely simplistic in nature, but ideologies and messages were presented in a direct way and did not call for the audience to consider or critique their own values when consuming these films.
Essentially, the films of Lingyu’s time were offering the audience images that were representative of their own lives without ciritism. In her text Zhang states, “Yet, in it’s explicit engagement with the heterogeneous origin of early Chinese cinema and its subsequent transformation, the film, as a self-conscious historiographical project, once again proves the capacity of the cinema to endow the surface of fractured reality with a historical and human face” (p. 53), which explains that it is typical of cinema of this era to present relatable plots and mise-en-scène which do not drift from cultural and historical accuracy. Directors of Lingyu’s period were interested in representing reality, as well as reinforcing the ideologies of society that already existed, without question. It is clear that the aesthetics of 1930s Chinese melodramas that are central to the setting of Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage are direct in the way they present their narratives, which is familiar and comfortable to the audience.
Through the analysis of the aesthetics and themes of 1930s melodramas in China and more specifically, Shanghai, directors focused very heavily on dramatizing real life experiences of their own era in order to appeal to the audience and their views. Although Douglas Sirk’s style still focuses on elaborate dramatization, this director does not seek to simply present a theatrical version of the world in a way that the audience would be comfortable viewing. This is evident when Klinger recalls Marcorelles review of Sirk’s 1956 film Written On The Wind, stating that it “represents an “exclusively visual thematic,” rather than a “recreation from the inside, of beings and the world.”” (4), claiming that Sirk’s style stretches beyond dramatizing familiar experiences, and instead his visual styles express more controversial themes and meanings. Douglas Sirk’s heavy stylization is self-reflexive and implores the audience to comment on their views of society, as opposed to appealing to them. Klinger’s text delves into this concept, describing the way Sirk’s visual aesthetics question societal and audience expectations, by presenting a heightened level of glamour and drama on screen. While early Chinese melodramas use drama very plainly for the purpose of creating a thoroughly entertaining plot that meets audience expectations, Klinger analyzes Sirk’s use of dramatization stating, “The mise-en-scène may show us “glitter with nothing inside,” but that is just the point.” (4), alluding to the fact that his use of heightened dramatics put into question the emptiness of the audience’s romanticized values concerning drama and tragedy. Ultimately, this function behind Sirk’s elaborate visual style is useful in creating content that forces the audience to criticize what they view on screen in conjunction with their own expectations of the narrative. This further engages the audience in the film as the viewing experience involves reflecting on their own views and values.
The way that Sirk’s style demands for the audience to question the values that were instilled in them prior to viewing a film are defining characteristics of Brecht’s “boomerang-image”, which Sirk was well-practiced in (Willemen 128). Willemen quotes Dort, defining the boomerang-image as a technique which presents the audience with an idealized version of their own experiences that they would like to see, but only does so to criticize this image, bouncing it back to them like a boomerang (Dort 190-191). The author describes how Sirk’s films perform in a similar way by forcing the audience to evaluate the message and ideology behind what they are shown directly on the screen. In this text, Willemen explains that Sirk’s films function in this way wherein “…the world the audience wants to see (an exotic world of crime, wealth, corruption, passion, etc.) is a distorted projection of the audience’s own fantasies to which Sirk applies a correcting device, mirroring these very distortions.” (130), essentially stating that Sirk presents the images on screen with the intent of involving the audience in questioning their own interpretations and expectations, as opposed to imposing a particular viewpoint on them. This is evident in Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows in the final scene as protagonist Cary gazes out the window upon an idyllic meadow full of garish colours while an adorable deer approaches her from the other side of the glass. The image created by Sirk is too perfect and sweet, and the audience is forced to question their expectations of a happy ending, as the ending Sirk presents them with is over-idealized and unbelievable. According to the author, this method further involves the audience emotionally, as they are being confronted on a more personal level (Willemen 130). It is clear that Sirk’s style makes use of the boomerang-image techniques, and provides an emotionally engaging visual component, further incorporating the audience in the theme of the film.
Although Centre Stage focuses on the highly glamorized life and suicide of one of China’s most infamous early film actresses, this film does not seek to romanticize her life and death. At the same time, Stanley Kwan’s film is not actively presenting the audience with a critical perspective, but instead engages the audience in criticizing their own expectations of Lingyu on their own terms. Essentially, Kwan presents Lingyu as she is known in society through folklore—a glamorous and dramatic film star who’s demise was understood through the same tragic lens as her own fictional melodramas. However, the visual strategies he uses in his film do not necessarily support this reading of Lingyu as the truth, but instead asks the audience to explore the ways in which society remembers the actress, particularly by ironizing her glamorous life that the audience idolizes. Kwan asserts throughout the film that the audience is overly concerned with the way they have interpreted and remembered Lingyu, and Hjort makes it clear that, “the reality of Ruan Lingyu as a unique person with a distinct life story is ultimately unknowable and the search for truths about this historical figure can only be a fools game.” (60), clarifying that the film is not concerned with a truthful and accurate portrayal of Lingyu as her character is created out of gossip. Ultimately, the audience cannot make essential claims about understanding her. In order to adequately convey this concept, Kwan uses Sirk’s visual techniques to construct a critical perspective in this film, particularly by criticizing expectations of her story using Sirkian visuals.
Through the use of aesthetic techniques, Kwan highlights the loneliness, and entrapment that Lingyu feels throughout her career by creating elaborate empty spaces and presenting them to the audience through hyper-dramatic, grand camera movements, as we see in many of the shots of the inside of Lingyu’s home. This technique offers the audience their idealized assumption of Lingyu’s glamorous celebrity lifestyle, but it is undercut with a feeling of hollowness. Sirk composes his films in the same way, presenting empty visuals, and trapping his characters in decadent, yet lonesome settings. This is evident in the way he isolates protagonist Cary in his film All That Heaven Allows (1955) from her own family using the doorframes and decorative furniture in her mansion which represents the American dream of upper-class society. Hjort explains how the elaborate visuals used in Centre Stage encourage the audience to think critically about their expectations, writing, “The point will be to show that, far from undermining the idea of ‘epistemic access’, these innovative features provide evidence of, or simply encourage a form of epistemological prudence that allows viewers to distinguish carefully among various kinds of propositions:…” (62), meaning that neither director is clearly using their mise-en-scène to promote an obvious message. Therefor, the audience is able to evaluate what these pointed aesthetics mean, but evidently they are still active in developing a meaning instead of having it imposed on them. Essentially, Kwan’s visual styles, which shares many similarities with that of Sirk, make use of the boomerang-image to accurately represent the societal interpretation of Lingyu’s own emotional experience of balancing the joys and suffering of fame, as they must come to the same conclusions of Lingyu on their own while viewing the narrative.
The boomerang-image, as well as Sirk’s ironic style, is useful to Kwan as he is concerned with the ways in which society’s misconceptions and idolization of Lingyu caused her death. This theme becomes more engaging as the audience comes to its realization alongside Lingyu while watching the film, as opposed to being inundated with it by the director. It is evident during the scene wherein Lingyu exits her friend’s apartment, only to discover he has made her presence there known to the public. While the audience would expect her to be greeted by the crowd as a beloved film star surrounded by fans, as she is remembered today, the cinematography portrays her as a loner amongst an abusive crowd, highlighting the way that fame has isolated her as opposed to enriched her life. Here, the image of celebrity is produced on the screen for the audience but is immediately undercut using isolating and distanced camera techniques. This representation makes Lingyu’s story a more tragic and personal experience for the audience, as they are included in the discussion about fame and isolation that the film makes while they watch. Kwan clearly presents the audiences their own presumptions but uses a unique visual style of both drama and emptiness descended from Sirk to imply that these expectations should be criticized to better understand the meaning of Lingyu’s death, and the role that societal expectations played.
It is evident that Sirk’s aesthetic style, as well as the boomerang-image, serve Kwan well in Centre Stage, as he intends to express the film’s purpose through reflection as opposed to presentation.
Evidently, Kwan’s style of filmmaking requires complexities beyond the historically relevant style of early Chinese melodramas upon which his film is based. As discussed, these early films were focused on presenting dramatized, yet still familiar narrative that focuses heavily on what Linda Williams refers to as victimization of the innocent in the face of clear, unquestionable evil (80). However, the way Kwan wishes to construct meaning in his film is not so clear and direct as to be conveyed through this simplistic lens. Centre Stage purposefully shows that Ruan Lingyu’s death was extremely complex and cannot be understood in the simplified frame of thinking that folklore about her presents therefor a model based in creating a struggle of good and evil does not provide accurate reflexive commentary on Lingyu’s story. Hjort highlights the complexities involved in Lingyu’s death, claiming, “Kwan’s film is at once an attempt to demonstrate just how valuable the gift of Ruan’s artistic expression is and to understand the quasi-sacrificial logic of the social mechanisms that eclipsed it.” (108), meaning that Kwan was not attempting to invent an inauthentic villain that caused Lingyu’s tragic suffering as expected by the audience, but instead outlines the many complex relationships between celebrity and society that surrounded her death. This underrepresented depiction of Lingyu’s suicide is not romantic and tragic and departs from the way the actress is remembered in popular culture. Essentially, the clear aesthetics of experience that were prominent in early Chinese melodramas are incapable of sufficiently expressing this narrative in comparison with the techniques of Douglas Sirk. Portraying Lingyu in essentialist terms only confirms the audience’s predetermined idea of her as a tragic and glamorous movie star. It is necessary for Kwan to make use of aesthetics to further engage the audience in his film by creating themes that cause them to question their preconceived notions of Lingyu’s story.
Despite Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage being set within the early Chinese film industry, and focusing on the melodramas that it produced, the director chooses to adhere to Douglas Sirk’s melodramatic styles instead of the styles that would have been prominent during 1930s Shanghai cinema. While early melodramas in China distinctly recreated a slightly more dramatic version of the real experiences of 1930s China to appeal to the audience’s experience, these visual techniques plainly depict themes and do not implore the audience to critique their own, which is a necessary function of Kwan’s film. Further, this style is overly simplistic and focuses on creating a dynamic of innocence and evil, which only encourages the audience’s understanding of Lingyu through folklore. Conversely, Sirk’s style is not explicit in its messaging, and his theatricality begets emptiness, forcing the audience to question their perception of the content that they desire to consume. These visual techniques are far better at presenting Lingyu’s story in a way that does not demand truth but instead asks the audience to question what they believe to be the truth. Continuing, this causes the audience to be further involved in the film, as they must apply their own ideals and become personally involved in the film’s content. Ultimately, it is clear that Sirk’s distinct visual style produces Lingyu’s story in a more reflexive way compared to the style of early Chinese melodramas, as it allows the audience to consider their own expectations about Lingyu instead of upholding the romanticized version of the actress that society reinforces.
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