and no 14…
by Allan Fish
(China 1934 77m) DVD0 (US special order)
Aka. Shen nu
A mother such as this
p Luo Mingyou d/w Wu Yonggang ph Hong Weilie art Wu Yonggang
Ruan Lingyu, Zhang Zhizhi, Li Keng, Li Junpan, Tian Jian,
The Goddess truly is a tragic film in many ways, one that cannot help but leave one mournful on any number of levels; firstly on account of its melancholy plot, secondly on account of it representing a national cinema soon to be snuffed out so violently by the Japanese in 1937, and finally as a memorial to that Eastern goddess (in the worshipful sense, not the euphemism from which this film gets its title) Ruan Lingyu. Nowadays, she’s more famous for being the actress that Maggie Cheung played in Stanley Kwan’s Actress than for her films themselves. Yet in her time she was as popular in Shanghai as Garbo was in Hollywood and, upon her tragic death only a year later (a suicide), mourned like Valentino. For years it was impossible to see what all the fuss was about, her films seemingly flickered out for ever like the gas lamps of the Shanghai she knew so well. She made other fine films – such as Love and Duty and Little Toys (covered later) – but The Goddess is often referred to as her definitive role and is also one of the few available for consumption. All one can say is, eat your heart out Stella Dallas.
Lingyu plays a nameless woman who, on the run from police, is helped by a gambler cum pimp who blackmails her into prostitution in order to support her son. Using her earnings to help put her son through school, he is all she lives for, but local gossips conspire to get him expelled from school, much to the distress of a kindly headmaster who leaves as a result. Soon after, her money stash is uncovered by her brutal pimp and, in a fit, she kills him by breaking a bottle over his head. Sentenced to twelve years in prison, the headmaster finds out and offers to raise and educate her son himself. The mother is grateful and resigns herself to a life in prison and anonymity.
Though such a story could very easily have descended into melodrama, it never comes remotely close to it, sticking to a much more suitable and modern naturalistic style of acting and shooting. Like Bicycle Thieves and Ikiru, it finds humanity amongst the bleakness, where the slightest gesture can speak volumes and help lift the gloomiest of spirits. Indeed, it might even be called one of the first major works about the plight of women in society, several years before the Mizoguchi works that usually receive that accolade. There’s a magical symbolism at work here, much of it expressed through Lingyu’s remarkably emotive face. From the moment the opening shot of sunset changes into a gas lamp being lit, you somehow know you are going to be taken on a dark journey, a journey into the night. And no journey in a limo, this is a feet-blistering walk into the true horror of social prejudice, poverty and the hypocrisy of one’s fellow men. “One of these days I’m going to have to give you a taste of real suffering” the vile pimp tells her, and you know she knows he would. She’s resigned to her fate and we can see no happy ending for her. Though to a degree she does get one, via proxy, as prison is in many ways the best she could hope for. As for that ending, it surely ranks, along with Pickpocket, as the most emotional scene played through bars in movie history.
Though the direction and design are perfectly in keeping with the piece and create a true vision of a Shanghai only parodied by Von Sternberg, this is Lingyu’s film in every respect. Not only because it was a definitive role for her but because of what she represented. She was not only the first true movie star of oriental cinema, but one of the greatest actresses of the silent cinema. Period. The best advice I can give is to order the DVD (which is multi region and available only directly from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website), to both encourage that worthy organisation to release other such rarities for home viewing and to give the film the audience it deserves. The fact is, if you want to see where modern Asian queens Gong Li and Maggie Cheung owe their origins, accept no substitute.