While not well-known to modern audiences, China’s Ruan Ling-yu was considered one of the greatest actresses of the Silent Film Era. Her nickname was the “Chinese Greta Garbo”, as she had an innate ability to convey her every thought with facial expressions and body language. And, like Garbo, she did not rely on overly-theatrical movements. Instead, she had a natural film presence that lured her audience into viewing her as they would their next door neighbor. Of course, she possessed a beauty enhanced by flawless skin and piercingly emotive eyes. While her career was cut short by her suicide at the age of 24, Ruan Ling-yu is still one of the most iconic Chinese actresses ever.
The Goddess (1934) is probably the most revered Chinese silent film ever made. In it, Ruan Ling-yu plays an unnamed prostitute who works the streets of Shanghai to provide her son with a better life. Scorned by her female neighbors and bullied by her gambling pimp (Zhang Zhizhi), Ruan Ling-yu’s character hides money away so that she can educate her son and turn him into a respectable young man. While life seems to conspire to defeat her, the prostitute takes solace in the unconditional love and adoration of her son. In the end, she makes the ultimate sacrifice to ensure her son’s future.
This was director/writer Wu Yonggang’s first film, and he was quite fortunate to have Ruan Ling-yu as his star. In 1934, China was in the midst of a civil war and having to deal with Imperial Japan, so to say that Yonggang’s Shanghai-based production was stressful would be an understatement. Known as a Leftist director, Yonggang greatly benefitted from the Communists’ victory, and he enjoyed a directing career that spanned over 40 years. His egalitarian worldview shaped The Goddess into a story about a woman’s sacrifice for the betterment of her son. The overall tone of the film is humanistic. There is no judgment one way or another about how Ruan Ling-yu’s character earns her money. Instead, Yonggang presents a realistic view of what many women in Shanghai had to do to survive.
While Ruan Ling-yu’s performance is mesmerizing, the same cannot be said by the overall production of The Goddess. Of course, I viewed a rough restoration of the movie, so that could have contributed to its overall aesthetics. Still, there wasn’t any highly creative cinematography or set designs, which for me, at least, are necessary to push a silent film to the forefront of my memory.Thankfully, the story is compelling, so I can somewhat overlook what I consider lackluster photography and set designs.
Overall, I enjoyed watching Ruan Ling-yu’s performance. It gave me some context to consider the next time I watch Maggie Cheung play her in Stanley Kwan’s, Center Stage (1992). However, I think I would have liked the movie much more if the cinematography had been more memorable.