At 154 minutes, this expansive Chinese film version of the life of actress Ruan Ling-yu -- China's answer to Greta Garbo and one of that country's most highly regarded silent film stars -- is an occasionally compelling glimpse into not only the brief life of its subject (she committed suicide at age 25) but also an arresting glimpse into the early years of Chinese filmmaking. Director Stanley Kwan (Rouge)
obviously holds the memory of Ling-yu in high regard, parading her before the camera and lovingly recreating what is known of her tragic personal life at the time. In a unique twist on the standard Hollywood biopic, Kwan utilizes archival footage from the actress' six remaining films and even goes so far as to have the players step out of character from time to time to discuss what Ling-yu meant to them and to the history of silent films in China. Unfortunately, this too frequently comes off as a sort of period-piece version of China's Most Wanted or Where Are They Now? His uneven mix of reenactment, black-and-white interviews, and broken fourth walls results in a wildly uneven tribute to a Chinese legend -- at times it's hard to tell just where in the story you are, making this a confusing, though well-intentioned, epic that goes everywhere and nowhere at once. As Ling-yu, Maggie Cheung has the Garbo-isms down pat, though compared to the actual footage we see of the doomed actress, Cheung is far more beautiful. Tony Leung (The Lover)
is here as Ling-yu's one-true-love/downfall -- it's the fact that he never divorced his previous wife that causes the actress to go over the edge into suicidal madness. Apparently Leung has that effect on women. Gorgeous though it may be, Actress
remains a curiously uninvolving movie. Despite all the histrionics, it's just plain hard to care about this gorgeous cipher of a woman.