As part of the ICA's Hong Kong Film Festival, "Actress" is an ambitiously unorthodox biopic from director Stanley Kwan about Chinese star Ruan Ling-yu.
Despite her humble origins, Ling-yu ended up as one of the most famous stars of Shanghai cinema during the 30s, specializing in tragic female roles in the likes of "The Goddess" and "New Woman".
Yet having completed some 29 films by the age of just 25, she committed suicide after being villified in the tabloid press for her affair with a married man, Chang Ta-min. Maggie Cheung (so memorable in Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love") provides a superlative central performance, winning her the Best Actress Silver Bear Prize at Berlin in 1992.
Focusing only on the years leading up to Ruan's untimely death, "Actress" doesn't pursue a simple linear path. Shifting backwards and forwards in time, it consists of colour reconstructions of events in its protagonist's life, black and white footage from her films, as well as monochrome interviews with surviving veterans and with Kwan and his cast members, who ponder their own feeling towards their subject. ("Isn't she just a replica of me?", laughs Cheung.) One of the cumulative effects of this mixing of formats and styles is that the film moves away from the idea of a definitive truth about Ruan, and instead allows a range of perspectives on her experiences.
Thanks in part to the opulent period recreations, "Actress" serves as a tribute from the vantage point of early 90s Hong Kong to a little known era of Chinese cinematic history. Above all it's a love-letter to Ruan herself. Shot repeatedly through bars and windows to suggest her character's entrapment, Cheung captures Ruan's grace, poise and modesty, whilst suggesting beneath the impeccable façade an inner sadness.