a woman have it all in 1930’s Shanghai?
Not even close. Wei Ming will
try, but a vindictive former lover and an exploitative press will cost her
dearly. An eerie case of art
foreshadowing life, Cai Chusheng’s New
Women became one of Ruan Lingyu’s best known films, partly for reasons of
tragic symmetry. Appropriately, it
screens this Sunday as part of the Asia Society’s new film series Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen,
largely inspired by Ruan herself.
called the “Chinese Greta Garbo” Ruan appears to be something like the Chinese
Joan Crawford in New Women’s early
scenes. A music teacher at a progressive women’s school, she has written a
debut novel so promising, a publishing house actually buys it, even though she
is a woman. Her only problem is Dr.
Wang, a well-heeled but unwelcomed suitor, who already happens to be
married. Stung by her rejection, Wang bribes
Wei’s headmistress, hoping sudden unemployment will force her into his
arms. For Wei, it could not have come at
a worse time.
anyone, Wei Ming made mistakes in her life.
Eloping with the wrong man was one of them. When he abandoned her and their baby, Wei was
forced to send Wei Xiaohong to live with her aunt. After years apart, Wei is finally about to
take custody of the daughter she loves but never met. However, when the young girl arrives, she exhibits
rather worrisome symptoms. Though quickly
diagnosed, Wei and her sister lack the funds to pay for her hospitalization.
is hard to imagine anything as manipulative as dying child and Cai duly milks
it for all it is worth. He innocently
abetted by Chen Sujuan, who is absolutely heartbreaking as the young girl. Yet, it is Ruan’s extended final exit that truly
dominates the film, ranking with Garbo’s famous scene in Camille.
some ways, New Women is surprisingly
modern for a silent film, employing some rather feverish montages and
displaying an unmistakable sexual frankness.
Moreover, its unflattering depiction of scandal-mongering journalists is
just as timely here and now as it was in Republican China, but this led the
press to vociferously turn against New
Women and Ruan, by extension. It is
also an example of one of Cai’s more overtly leftist films, ending with a
Soviet style march of women workers, not so subtly warning of things to
come. Sadly, it would be co-star Zheng
Junli, a lifetime progressive, who was most in need of that warning,
considering how greatly he would suffer during the Cultural Revolution.
Ruan was a beautiful, hauntingly expressive
artist, with a presence of orchid-like fragility. While Goddess
is a fuller, more satisfying film, her gifts are readily apparent
throughout New Women. Recommended for silent movie buffs, students
of early feminist film, and those who just appreciate a good weepy tragedy, New Women screens this Sunday (11/11) at
the Asia Society as part of their must-see Goddess
series, which starts with the title film this Friday (11/9).
Labels: Asia Society, Cai Chusheng, Chinese Cinema, Goddess Chinese Women on Screen, Ruan Lingyu, Silent Films