Very much a product of the ever more postmodern 1990s, the drama-doc Actress forms both an interrogation and a commemoration of a legend. The first time we see Ruan Ling-yu, the performer who became Chinese cinema's biggest star before dying at her own hand aged just 25 in 1935, she's a blurry presence in period stills; then we see Maggie Cheung, the actress recruited to play her, being interviewed by her director Stanley Kwan as to whether she believes she'll be remembered fifty years after her own demise. There follow a series of vignettes from Ruan's life, generally one a year from 1930 onwards, which show Cheung-as-Ruan at her professional peak (and her most emotionally vulnerable) and link her fate with that of the Chinese nation, facing up to the threat of an increasingly militaristic Japan. Yet this lavish attempt at costume drama keeps being broken up, either by clips from the original movies or interviews with those who knew Ruan and those charged with playing those who knew her. These cutaways are much more disruptive than those in Reds, say, where the gathered roster of ageing Communists formed a Greek chorus backing up the fictionalised drama; here, we keep being reminded that Cheung is an actress playing the part of an actress, a continuation of the star system Ruan initiated, yet - as Cheung herself admits on camera - otherwise very little like the woman she's been charged with playing.
The experience of watching Actress is thus both educative on some level and a touch frustrating. Cheung's naturally melancholic air certainly brings the character of "Ruan" into sharper focus than those initial publicity shots - it helps that Kwan lights her like an angel, and dresses her almost as well as Wong Kar-wai ever did - and the vignettes collectively summon some sort of damning feminist thrust: Kwan positions his Ruan as a prisoner of a boys' town, one where sweaty producers in saunas dictated which roles an actress should play. (Off-set, this Ruan drifts from one power player to the next, finding personal happiness ever more elusive.) Yet it's a long, slow decline, and I suspect that for easiest consumption you'll need to have at least a working knowledge of the films Ruan starred in - movies that have gone almost entirely uncirculated outside their country of origin. (The clips of Ruan in Mark Cousins' The Story of Film suggest she was a very modern presence in the era's swooning melodramas - a Louise Brooks of the East, perhaps, working in productions that may deserve a revival in the same way Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town has been in recent years.) Certainly ambitious and bold, especially when you consider Kwan was dealing with a national icon, it now plays like Farewell My Concubine as restaged by Brecht.
Actress is currently unavailable to buy or stream in the UK.