Ruan Ling-yu was among the biggest Chinese silent-film stars, acclaimed, adored, and compared to Greta Garbo. Her brief life – ending in suicide before turning 25 – seems just as mysterious as that of the great “I vant to be alone” Swede (who did manage to live to 85, as a hermit in Manhattan). In less than a decade, Ruan made 29 films, her funeral was attended by some 300,000 mourners… and three of her fans were said to have killed themselves on that day in 1935; the New York Times carried the story on the front page.
Twenty-five years ago, Stanley Kwan made “Centre Stage,” an elaborate (and often opaque) biopic of Ruan’s life, with a star-studded cast: Maggie Cheung as Ruan, in the company of Carina Lau, Tony Ka Fai Leung, Han Chin, Cecilia Yip, Ruan’s fellow silent-film star Li-li Li (who died in 2005), and others.
Now “Centre Stage” director Kwan himself, and another film of his, the 1987 “Rouge” (with Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung meeting in a brothel in 1930s Hong Kong) are all heading to San Francisco and the 6th annual Hong Kong Cinema Festival here, Sept. 23-25, in the Embarcadero Center Cinema. Kwan will introduce his films in person. The event is produced in association with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office. Of the many versions of “Centre Stage,” the San Francisco screening will present the 147-minute director’s cut from Hong Kong. Other edited versions are as much as a half an hour shorter.
One of the country’s oldest and largest film festivals, the San Francisco International has long been transformed into a year-around carousel of films. Produced by SFIFF’s parent organization, the San Francisco Film Society, dozens of mini-festivals surround the next “big one,” No. 60, coming in April, 2017.
The Hong Kong festival is said by SFFS to consist of “exciting new works and classic hits from one of the world’s most important film-making hubs showcases Hong Kong’s range of cinematic storytelling with contributions from both internationally known filmmakers and up-and-coming talents.”
Film Society programmer Rod Armstrong calls attention to new works being added to the retrospective screenings, including the 2016 “Three,” Johnnie To’s thriller set in a Taiwan? hospital (with Zhao Wei, Louis Koo, and Wallace Chung); Derek Yee’s 2015 “I Am Somebody,” called “an intimate epic” about Chinese film extras; and Steve Chan Chi-fat’s 2016 “Weeds on Fire,” about Hong Kong’s first youth league baseball team.
New films include Sylvia Chang’s 2015 “Murmur of the Hearts,” set in Taiwan, about siblings Mei (Isabella Leong) and Nan (Lawrence Ko) separated at a young age; Fruit Chan’s 2016 “Kill Time,” a mystery thriller featuring the model Angelababy; and Andy Lo’s 2016 “Happiness,” starring two generations of Hong Kong stars, Carlos Chan and Kara Hui (Huì Ying Hóng), a veteran actress with more than a hundred films and TV programs to her credit, and an armload of awards.
“Happiness,” to be screened at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 25, is of special interest. The director – also known as Law Yiu-Fai and Kenny Lo – has acting and writing credits galore, but this is only his second film as director, after the not particularly successful 2013 “Hardcore Comedy.” Here, Lo takes an approach that’s both bold and yet traditional in the sense of the feel-good, comic-romantic Hollywood style of George Cukor and a half dozen other Hungarian expatriots.
Chan plays Yuk (that’s the name), a young short-order cook without work and “prospects,” whose life intertwines with that of Auntie Fan (Hui), a prematurely senile recluse. With all the obvious dangers of heartwarming excess and assured happy ending, the film manages to maintain interest, and the two principals carry the day.