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?
The Goddess | Why Be Good? | On With The Dance | The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands | Damn the War! | Experimental cinema | The Tribe
Silent film screenings aren’t like other movie screenings. For one, there’s no shuffling out, or chatting during the credits. In fact, there is a distinct order to proceedings: the final card indicates “The End”; the music stops; there is a brief hush; and then, applause. But at the screening of Chinese classic The Goddess (1934) during this year’s London Film Festival, one member of the audience broke ranks. While everyone else in the Queen Elizabeth Hall caught their breath, in that precious pause between the lush orchestral music and the thunder of appreciation, a gentleman behind me forgot himself, and punctured the silence. “Wow,” he gasped. And who can blame him?
The Goddess (Shen Nu) was, is, a masterpiece, a terrible tale told with great humanity and capped by a staggeringly powerful performance from tragic star Ruan Lingyu. She plays a prostitute, a “goddess” in Chinese slang of the time, who does what she does because she has another mouth to feed at home, her cherished infant son. The scenes in which we see Ruan at work, soliciting, are obliquely shot (shadows, feet, meet at sharp angles), but still somehow bold. Perhaps that is because we are shown her as a mother, a neighbour first, and the reality of her job is a touch too tough to comprehend. And at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that she keeps her work separate from her home life. But one day a venal gambler (Zhizhi Zhang) moves in to her house, and lays his hands on her earnings. And then the gossips begin gossiping and it becomes horribly obvious that the Goddess’s plans to give her son a better life are in jeopardy. Ruan’s beauty is almost more than the film can handle at times, but her performance is deftly nuanced and terribly soulful. The joy on her face when she sees her son succeed at school, her horror when she realises the trap she has fallen into: I am haunted by both of them.
While I know I am not the first to acclaim The Goddess, audience opinion was divided on the new score written by Chinese composer Zou Ye. It was undoubtedly beautiful, in fact for some it was too lyrical, but it drifted away from the film at times, missing the cues and shifts in tone that it should have been more alert to. When Ruan skips home with a brand new toy for her son, happy to be free at last, the music expresses her joy and liberation wonderfully. But that same tune continued over the heart-in-stomach lurch when she spots a hat on the table, and the whip pan that reveals the Gambler standing triumphant in her new flat.
Nothing to quibble about with the restoration though: the film looks gorgeous, clean and bright. I want, need, to see it again.
And I would happily snap up a ticket to see Why Be Good?(1929) once more, especially as Colleen Moore’s life story, and this film, offer such a fine balance to the tragedy of Ruan Lingyu and The Goddess. Moore was quite the perkiest creation ever to appear on screen (her character’s name in this confection is aptly, if bazarrely, Pert Kelly). With her sharp bob and expert comic charm, she was the flappiest of flappers and a huge silent star. And while her career may not have prospered in the sound era, her finances did. She is a happy example of a silent star who invested wisely and lived comfortably until a ripe old age, hanging around long enough to appear in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood TV series for example.
Sadly, however, the films she left for safekeeping in the studio archive were not so well cared for, so the chances to see her work are few and far between. Why Be Good? is a happy recent discovery and restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone Project and the Bologna labs. All of the Vitaphone discs for Why Be Good? were salvaged, so this silent film has continual sound: music mostly. I confess I was a little wary of the prospect of a running soundtrack of jazz tunes, but I was wrong to worry. The songs are carefully chosen and as well as some mundane sound effects (clattering dance steps, bells and whistles), there are some nifty sound-design jokes, including a comic scene in which two drunken sots “sing” and pound on a car horn.
As to the movie itself, Why Be Good? is a far more likeable rendition of Synthetic Sin, which showed at Pordenone this month. Colleen is a dance-loving shop assistant, who likes to ham it up as a fast-living flapper when really she’s a good girl through and through. When she falls for the boss’s son (a rather deramy Neil Hamilton) he can sense this instantly, but once their respective fathers start meddling the scene is set for hilarious and heartbreaking misunderstandings. Featherlight fun, with a feminist twist (no, really) and Moore is as sweet and smart as the jazz age scene-setting is seductive. Apparently Jean Harlow is in there among the extras. I well believe it, everything in this film looked too gorgeous for words.
Speaking of which, Why Be Good? was preceded by a delightful colour short called On With the Dance (1927) in which Josephine Baker herself and many lesser-known, un-named chorus girls take to the stage. Baker’s dance is labelled the Plantation – after the club, and no doubt the other thing too. She’s wonderful, but it’s a little uncomfortable to watch her dancing in dungarees and rags. Anyway, a real treasure from the archive this, and the following scenes of chorus lines spinning through dances ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous are notable for their splendid colour and kooky camera angles. The closeup of a bewildered punter, his sweating face superimposed with a kaleidoscope of high-kicking legs, was hilarious. Very The Pleasure Garden … And of course, this sort of thing is always better with John Sweeney on the keyboard, so we were very much in luck.
Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.
There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.
But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.
The mountain footage in 'Colored Views from the Entire World' with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne was particularly magical. #GCM33
The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.
The launch of the London Film Festival programme is a cascade of A-list stars, esteemed auteurs, Oscar contenders, Hollywood blockbusters and world premieres. But enough of all that. Did someone mention Colleen Moore? Here’s our rundown of the silent cinema offering at the BFI London Film Festival this year.
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)
“Virtually unknown” it may be, but this fantastic British war film was a real genre game-changer. Walter Summers directs the noble tale of “a victory and a defeat almost as glorious as a victory”, which was a hit with audiences and critics both on its release. Unjustly neglected for years, TBOCAFI has been rescued from osbcurity via a gleaming new restoration and a modern brass score, which will be performed by members of the Royal Marine band at the LFF Archive Gala screening.
This sumptuous Chinese melodram stars Ruan Lingyu as “goddess” or sex worker, trying to care for her child, who is pushed into taking violent revenge on her pimp. Described on these pages by John Sweeney as: “Unsentimental and quite without melodrama, this is a great film.” The festival screening will be accompanied by the English Chamber orchestra, playing a new score by Chinese composer Zou Ye.
Screens: 7.30pm, 14 October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Buy tickets here.