Lingyu was often called the “Chinese Greta Garbo,” but unfortunately Marilyn
Monroe might be a more tragically apt comparison. Dogged by scandal, the celebrated actress
would take her own life in 1935. Awareness
of her fate adds even more poignancy to her work in Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess, a classic of
silent Chinese cinema, which inspired the title of the Asia Society’s latest
film series, Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen. Fittingly, it launches their
retrospective this Friday.
character has no name. Nor does she have
a husband, but she has Shuiping, a baby boy for whom she will do anything. With no other resources, the woman is forced
to sell herself on Shanghai’s predatory streets. There are no codes or euphemisms here. She is a prostitute, plain and simple. Operating outside the law, she has no
recourse when “the boss” appoints himself her pimp. While she tries to escape his clutches, he
threatens to take the only bright spot in her life: Shuiping.
as Shuiping matures, his mother sets aside money at great risk to pay for his education,
at great personal risk. Unfortunately, intolerant
parents complain to the progressive headmaster, claiming the presence of a
prostitute’s son would threaten their children’s morals.
the year before Ruan’s sad demise, Goddess
is arguably like an Oprah pick for 1930’s Shanghai. It forthrightly deals with issues of gender
victimization and class exploitation, working towards a bittersweet conclusion,
with the emphasis on the bitter. Yet,
Ruan elevates the film well beyond the realm of social issue melodrama.
the appeal of some silent stars, like say Mary Pickford, is not always
compatible with contemporary tastes, Ruan has a timeless beauty and projects a
devastating vulnerability as the unnamed woman.
She also has heartbreakingly touching chemistry with young Li Keng as
the sweet-tempered Shuiping. Li Juunpan,
a stage actor who crossed over to silent movies, also brings remarkable
presence and dignity to the film as the John Dewey-esque headmaster, while Zhang
Zhizhi personifies sweaty odiousness as “the Boss.”
Ruan’s work in Goddess is so honest and powerful, it transcends time and fashion. In fact, there are none of the grossly exaggerated
performances that often date silent cinema.
A true classic in any era, The
Goddess will leave viewers deeply moved, in a fully satisfying way. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (11/9)
at the Asia Society. The touchstone
figure for the series, Ruan also stars in New
Women screening this Sunday (11/11) and is the subject of Stanley Kwan’s
biopic Center Stage, which concludes
the series on Saturday, December 8th.
Labels: Asia Society, Chinese Cinema, Goddess Chinese Women on Screen, Ruan Lingyu, Silent Films