Thursday, November 08, 2012

Goddess: New Women

Could a woman have it all in 1930’s Shanghai?  Not even close.  Wei Ming will try, but a vindictive former lover and an exploitative press will cost her dearly.  An eerie case of art foreshadowing life, Cai Chusheng’s New Women became one of Ruan Lingyu’s best known films, partly for reasons of tragic symmetry.  Appropriately, it screens this Sunday as part of the Asia Society’s new film series Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen, largely inspired by Ruan herself.

Often called the “Chinese Greta Garbo” Ruan appears to be something like the Chinese Joan Crawford in New Women’s early scenes. A music teacher at a progressive women’s school, she has written a debut novel so promising, a publishing house actually buys it, even though she is a woman.  Her only problem is Dr. Wang, a well-heeled but unwelcomed suitor, who already happens to be married.  Stung by her rejection, Wang bribes Wei’s headmistress, hoping sudden unemployment will force her into his arms.  For Wei, it could not have come at a worse time.

Like anyone, Wei Ming made mistakes in her life.  Eloping with the wrong man was one of them.  When he abandoned her and their baby, Wei was forced to send Wei Xiaohong to live with her aunt.  After years apart, Wei is finally about to take custody of the daughter she loves but never met.  However, when the young girl arrives, she exhibits rather worrisome symptoms.  Though quickly diagnosed, Wei and her sister lack the funds to pay for her hospitalization.

It is hard to imagine anything as manipulative as dying child and Cai duly milks it for all it is worth.  He innocently abetted by Chen Sujuan, who is absolutely heartbreaking as the young girl.  Yet, it is Ruan’s extended final exit that truly dominates the film, ranking with Garbo’s famous scene in Camille.

In some ways, New Women is surprisingly modern for a silent film, employing some rather feverish montages and displaying an unmistakable sexual frankness.  Moreover, its unflattering depiction of scandal-mongering journalists is just as timely here and now as it was in Republican China, but this led the press to vociferously turn against New Women and Ruan, by extension.  It is also an example of one of Cai’s more overtly leftist films, ending with a Soviet style march of women workers, not so subtly warning of things to come.  Sadly, it would be co-star Zheng Junli, a lifetime progressive, who was most in need of that warning, considering how greatly he would suffer during the Cultural Revolution.

Ruan was a beautiful, hauntingly expressive artist, with a presence of orchid-like fragility.  While Goddess is a fuller, more satisfying film, her gifts are readily apparent throughout New Women.   Recommended for silent movie buffs, students of early feminist film, and those who just appreciate a good weepy tragedy, New Women screens this Sunday (11/11) at the Asia Society as part of their must-see Goddess series, which starts with the title film this Friday (11/9).