Ruan Lingyu appeared in her first film in 1927, aged 16. In 1935, she took her own life, just over a month before her 25th birthday. In that short time, she had appeared in many Chinese silent films and become one of the country’s best known actresses. Today she is celebrated for her delicately nuanced performances in those films that survive – she has been called the “Chinese Garbo”. However, if you’ve seen Stanley Kwan’s 1992 film Center Stage say, you will also know about the troubles Lingyu encountered, and the events leading up to her shocking suicide.
Lingyu’s private life shouldn’t concern us now, any more than in 1935, but when you watch The Goddess, a stunning Chinese silent film and one of the last she made, it is difficult not to make a link between the actress and the character she plays. Lingyu’s suicide note (which may have been forged) famously read “gossip is a fearful thing”, and her early death came after she had been monstered by the press over her love life. In The Goddess, Lingyu plays another woman devastated by malicious gossip. But it’s important not to take this comparison too far – the chatter of small-minded women is not the worst of her character’s problems.
The first thing to know about this film, which is every bit as beautiful and tragic as its star, is that “goddess” was a Chinese slang term for a prostitute, perhaps a slightly ironic one. Lingyu’s character embodies the perceived contradictions in that name: she is a loving mother who supports her son by nightly sex work. The crib is in the centre of her home, and her garish cheong sams are hanging on the wall. The nameless heroine has the misfortune of running into the house of a sleazy gambler, “The Boss”, when fleeing the police one night. From that moment one, her decides to exploit her, taking her earnings on the threat of harming her son. When the “goddess” attempts to send her son to school, the other mothers soon catch on to the way she earns her money, and complain to the principal, which is when our heroine faces the worst crisis of all.
Prostitution was rife in China in the 1930s and The Goddess’s story would not have been unusual. Many women were forced by poverty or trafficking into a career that was both illegal and made them vulnerable to pimps and clients – some of whom might be beasts like the Boss. If they aspired to a better, safer, more respectable life, the taint of sex work could hamper their efforts – which this film illustrates. The Goddess doesn’t feel like a campaigning film, despite a rousing speech made by the school principal, and you may feel let down by the ending. But this is a humane and very moving film – who knows whether it may have changed a few attitudes in its time?
Lingyu’s performance is central, and heartbreaking from first to last. One scene in particular is unforgettable: her joy at picking out a small toy for her son, and then horror when she finds the venal Boss in her apartment when she returns home. The soliciting scenes are handled with sensitivity; this film is interested in the woman, not her job. The Boss is played with real callousness by Zhang Zhizhi. He’s an especially believable villain because his cruelty is so off-hand, his ill-gotten gains so easily come by, for him that is. And Keng Li as the son is just wonderful – especially when he is singing in the school assembly.
It’s hugely welcome to see The Goddess released on DVD in this country and this is a new restoration by the China Film Archive so it really is looking its best. It’s a shame, however, that this is a fairly bare-bones release, with no extra features beyond a booklet. Also, I’m not really a fan of the Zou Ye classical score included here, which while very pretty elides some of the film’s narrative crises and generally feels a little disconnected from the action. I was lucky enough to see this film recently at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival where it was accompanied beautifully by John Sweeney (I discuss that screening here), and I would have loved to see a piano score along those lines included here.
The Goddess is a wonderful melodrama and truly great silent film, as well as a tribute to its incandescent star Ruan Lingyu. Do see it if you can.