A masterpiece by Stanley Kwan, the greatest Hong Kong film I've seen (also known as Ruan Ling Yu and Center Stage). The story of silent film actress Ruan Ling Yu (1910-1935), known as the Garbo of Chinese cinema, it combines documentary with period re-creation, biopic glamour with profound curiosity, and ravishing historical clips with color simulations of the same sequences being shot--all to explore a past that seems more complex, mysterious, and sexy than the present. Maggie Cheung won a well-deserved best actress prize at Berlin for her classy performance in the title role, and a large part of what Kwan does as a director is to create a kind of nimbus around her poise and grace. (If I had to pick Kwan's Hollywood equivalent, I'd opt for George Cukor.) Kwan also creates a labyrinth of questions around who Ruan was and why she committed suicide--a labyrinth both physical (with beautifully ambiguous uses of black-and-white movie sets) and metaphysical--and keeps these questions perpetually open. You should be prepared for a picture that lasts 146 minutes and invites you to relish every one of them--not only the stylish beauty of an imagined Shanghai film world of the 30s, but also the flat abrasiveness of Kwan chatting with Cheung on video about what all this means and coming up with damn little. Any historical movie worth its salt historicizes the present along with the past, and this movie is partly and implicitly about our inadequacy next to those potent clips of Ruan Ling Yu herself (1991). Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, April 15, 6:00, 443-3737.

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