Following on from my last recommendation, Salt for Svanetia, I want to gently guide people in the direction of another rare cinematic masterpiece, which is now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, waiting to be discovered at the mere expense of one click on youtube.
Made in 1934 and directed by Wu Yonggang, The Goddess (Shen-nu) hails from the golden age of Chinese cinema when Shanghai in particular was a vibrant hub for artistic and intellectual activity. It tells the story of a prostitute (in Chinese the word goddess is an informal slang term used to refer to prostitutes), played by legendary actress Ruan Lingyu, and the sacrifices she makes to pay for her young son’s education. A thuggish pimp claims ownership over her and forces her to cede her earnings to him. The film may not be particularly formally innovative (though there is the interesting touch here and there, like one shot framed between the legs of the pimp to emphasise his hold on Ruan Lingyu’s character), but the way it deals with its topic make it feel far ahead of its time. Tony Rayns has called it the first film, anywhere in the world, to seriously address the issue of prostitution without judging it as a morally vile societal scourge.
But really the main thing making this an unmissable film is Ruan and her incandescent performance, subtle, controlled and impressive even by modern standards. Despite the silent cinema’s proclivity for over-expressive histrionics, Ruan was not one to over-act. The determined force of her devotion to her son, and her anguished pain at being effectively imprisoned, are depicted through facial gestures and glances.
Ruan, often nicknamed the Chinese Greta Garbo, is still remembered today as a tragic figure, her brief life coming to an end after her suicide aged 24, and her funeral having a miles-long procession of weeping admirers. (Her life was notably dramatised into Stanley Kwan’s biopic Centre Stage, starring Maggie Cheung.) She too came from an underprivileged background, and her mother raised her alone, slaving away as a maid in order to afford a decent education for her daughter. Ruan’s suicide was partly the result of tireless gossip-mongers prying into her private life, often maliciously. She may have been a beloved actress, but in a culture where tradition still decreed that ‘keeping face’ is all-important, a profession in the entertainment business was looked down on as hardly any better than prostitution. Many feigned kindness to her face, but dragged her name in the mud behind her back. So Ruan certainly drew on personal experience for her empathetic performance, in which she completely becomes her character.
Anyway, the film’s mix of progressive social affinity and of understated subtlety for such melodramatic material, together with the grammar of silent cinema, makes it fascinating to rediscover today, while it is also a landmark of Chinese film history. Chinese cinema, like Japanese cinema and a few others, was late in welcoming sound and in 1934 silent films were still the norm (the first Chinese sound film was made in 1931 but it would take until around 1936 before talkies overtook silent as the predominant mode). The Goddess feels a bit like an indication of what might have been, had the movies continued to progress as a silent artform beyond the twenties.