2. Reconstructing History: The (Im)possible Engagement between Feminism and Postmodernism in Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage
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Chapter Two Reconstructing History The (Im)possible Engagement between Feminism and Postmodernism in Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage ALLUSIONS TO EARLY FILMS AND film stars call on the memories of the audience and refer to the images housed in film archives. When memories and fragments are reconstructed, however, they enter a process of cinematic reproduction and cultural reinterpretation. In other words, a reconstructed history involves a mode of historiography where spatial/temporal and sociocultural displacement blurs the lines between past and present and between historical images and textual reconfigurations. Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage (Ruan Lingyu, 1992) is such a film. It remakes the past for the comprehension of the present, and it recreates the semicolonial Shanghai of the 1930s for the postcolonial Hong Kong of the 1990s.1 To examine notions of history and its reconstruction, Center Stage employs an intertextual form that involves the film’s (meta)narrative-cinematic structures: Maggie Cheung, a film star of the 1990s, plays Ruan Lingyu, a silent screen star of the 1930s;2 a Hong Kong film crew reconstructs the classic film footages; documentary-like interviews with veteran actors and commentaries link past and present. The film thus presents the audience with a triply juxtaposed picture: Ruan’s personal life story as primary source, her images framed in archival clips as representation, and the present remake as reconstruction. The film’s metastructure has drawn critical interest from various interpretative slants. Julian Stringer discusses how Center Stage reconstructs the star image in a search for subjectivity in contemporary Hong Kong. The film’s rewriting of the bio-pic, according to Stringer, raises questions about the use of multiple languages, the re-presentation of Ruan’s on-screen image and off-screen persona, and the moment when “the city is discovering itself at the very moment of its disappearance .”3 Although the bio-pic image of Ruan Lingyu remains ultimately inaccessible to us, Kristine Harris annotates Ruan’s fragmented stories with historical details. Harris tells of the engagement between film directors and the female image, the discourse of the new woman and its visual representations , and the role of woman in public spectacle and private domain. Kwan’s Center Stage, Harris concludes, brings together “two golden ages of world-class cinema: early twentieth-century Shanghai and late twentiethcentury Hong Kong.”4 To extend the analysis, I argue that the film’s thematic concentration on the female subject in relation to film history invites a feminist reading of the film, while the interplay between past and present and China and Hong Kong promotes a postmodern consciousness. This chapter participates in the debate over the compatibilities and contradictions between feminism and postmodernism through an analysis of Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage. The premises from which my arguments extend suggest that conversations between these two theoretical groups have hardly found an agreeable ground. We generally concur that although postmodernism and feminism may have different primary “others” (modernism and patriarchy respectively), they share a concern for understanding systems of representation and for requestioning the master narratives, such as history and philosophy.5 Yet while the vocabularies of the two critiques sound compatible, their fundamental principles appear contradictory. Postmodernism , with its fragmented narrative structure and metacoding system , allows no privileged position for an autonomous speaking subject. The feminist critique, however, has fought to seize a female subject position in history and in representation. As postmodern practices attempt to decode and disrupt foundational structures, feminism tries to insert gender difference into mainstream discourse. While concerned critics consider the possibilities for introducing sexual difference into postmodern critique, Center Stage, a production of postcolonial (Hong Kong) and postsocialist (China) conditions, problematizes the issue. The central question in this analysis asks how the film seeks to understand contemporary sociocultural transitions by reconstructing film history and female images from the past. The hypothesis I propose underscores the difficulty of merging feminist criticism with postmodern practice. RECONSTRUCTING HISTORY 31 The film structure reflects the historical moment when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Postmodernism is a slippery concept, and the multiplicity of meanings tagged “postmodern” can itself be read as a sign of postmodernism. As postsocialist (China) and postcolonialist (Hong Kong) societies become ever more involved in the arena of globalization, the notion of postmodernity suggests a consciousness and discourse that break national boundaries. Thus the contemporary sociohistorical, political, and economic transitions in China and Hong Kong call attention to the geopolitical imagination as a postmodern condition. Yet the possibility of...