Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Goddess (1934)

Please tell [my son] that his mother died long ago, so that he will never know he had a mother like me.
The Goddess (Ruan Lingyu) laments her various misfortunes.
Until her all-too untimely death by suicide at the tender age of 25, the actress Ruan Lingyu was perhaps the most famous movie star in China. Given the Japanese occupation starting in 1937, not much Chinese cinema survives from this era so her work and impact has largely been forgotten, but at the time her death sent shockwaves through mainland China (at her funeral procession, three women comitted suicide). With a fierce emotional integrity--largely unmatched by her peers both locally and around the globe--she captured the imaginations of an entire nation time and time again with her portrayals of women downtrodden and abused by the men in their lives, and the circumstances of their world at large. Nowadays she is most famously known for her penultimate film, The Goddess. Directed by first-time director Wu Yonggang (who was inspired to a film career specifically by the plight of prostitutes), the silent film The Goddess is a deceptively modern take on one of the oldest tales in the world: a woman, born into a man's world, desperately struggling to improve the lot of her family.

We begin with Ruan Lingyu, the unnamed titular Goddess, caring for her infant son in the squalor of her Shanghai apartment. The only hint of her unsavory profession are the two ornamental dresses hanging on the wall, which belie their impoverished surroundings. Intertitles tell us that while by night she's just a lowly prostitute, during the day she's as devoted and loving a mother as anyone could hope for. At night, she hesitantly leaves her infant son behind to walk the streets, a false smile plastered on her face, desperately hoping to make enough money to one day send her child to school.

These street-walking scenes are handled with a requisite restraint, as the director clearly didn't want to sully our image of the troubled protagonist. Yonggang discreetly conveys her indiscretions from afar. The camera always watches Lingyu walk the streets with a long shot, or from a high angle. Her johns are all picked up by implication and insinuation. In one scene, all we see are the character's feet: one pair of feet joins hers and they walk to a nearby doorway. A fade to her resignedly leaving in the morning is the only hint of what transpired the night before.

Complicating matters is the ruthless, violent gangster and gambler who shelters her from the police one night. In return for that act of seeming kindness, he brusquely insinuates himself into her life as her pimp, drinking and gambling away all her hard earned money. This lech threatens to take away her son if she doesn't comply to his sordid whims. She can't escape him despite her best efforts, and must resort to hiding a little bit of her money away each night.

The leering pimp looms over the mother and child he holds captive.
As the years pass, she eventually saves up enough money to send her son to the local school, where he is bullied mercilessly because of his mother's unsavory profession. In one particularly effective scene, Lingyu goes to the school to see her son perform in a talent show, but all she can focus on are the gossiping parents around her. The school board, scandalized by her presence, demand that the princpal expel her son before his attendance casts shameful aspersions on the school's reputation. However, won over by her selfless devotion to her child, he instead chooses to resign so as not to be a party to the expulsion.

Moreso even than the gangster/gambler/pimp who comes to run her life, The Goddess blames the city of Shanghai itself for its protagonist's struggles. Seen only briefly during the night, the city exists only as impersonal lights against complete darkness. With no human element to comfort or sympathize with our resilient hero, the darkness threatens to swallow her. In one scene, where Lingyu is cradling her baby and cursing her lot in life, the film immediately cuts to a shot of the city of lights... implicitly blaming the city itself (and the society within) for her inability to improve her station.

Ruan Lingyu walks the streets of Shanghai with a smile she does not truly feel.

Wisely, Yonggang places the film squarely on his young starlet's shoulders, and Lingyu proves equal to the task. Each scene is flooded with countless close-ups (heavily reminiscent of Carl Dreyer's own examination of a self-sacrificing young woman in The Passion of Joan of Arc). Lingyu's tortured face effortlessly transitions from the joy of holding her son, to the hopeless resignation of one who must reluctantly accept the most fetid circumstances. Make no mistake, this is no typical "hooker with a heart of gold", when near the end of the film her frightening pimp discovers, and gambles away, her hard-earned savings, Ling-yu shows how far her character is willing to go to protect the future of her only remaining family. In the film's final shot, after the principal--won over by her devotion to her son--promises to adopt and care for her child, Lingyu conveys such a wide spread of emotions in an instant: anguish at her own bleak circumstances; elation for her son's now bright future; sorrow at the isolation and loneliness she faces. Lingyu's tragic suicide clearly robbed Chinese cinema of decades of fearless, unforgettable performances.

That this film is silent adds to her performance's impact. Without any diagetic noise to distract from her greatest asset--her malleable face--the viewer is confronted with the full brunt of the actress's emotive power (which, given her suicide a year after the film's release, was perhaps entirely due to her acting).

Even though The Goddess is a Chinese silent film from the 1930s, its themes and Lingyu's daring performance, are basically as relevant and impactful today. Especially in a nation where attacks on the rights of women seem once again to be in vogue... and those in power seemed determined to once again have their voices silenced. In this modern context, where men running for office trip over themselves in a race to see who can embrace the most anachronistic values, I'm reminded of the ill-fated Ruan Lingyu and her poor goddess: silenced and forgotten and left alone in the darkness.

Anyone wishing to experience The Goddess for themselves can find it on Youtube. If the accompanying score is too Orientalist for you, it's also available with a piano accompaniment here.