Ruan 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.
Ruan’s 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.
Nevertheless, 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.
Released 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.
While 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.”