Directed by Wu Yonggang
The Boss: “No matter how quickly the monkey flips, it can never break free from the huge monk's grip.” (Old proverb)
The human face is one of the most complex machines on the face of the planet. It is comprised of roughly 52 muscles and 14 bones. There are parts of our bodies that are much more complex, but the human face has captivated artists for thousands of years. Why? Probably because it is the seat of human emotion. A quick look at a person's face can reveal their mood. Probably for this reason, the cinema has been obsessed with the human face. Nowhere was this obsession more obvious than in the pictures of the silent age. “We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!” declares Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. How true. Faces dominated silent films. Without the presence of sound, actors had to focus all of their energies into their faces and body language in order to communicate their character's feelings. With the advent of sound pictures, this style of acting faded away. That's not to say that is a bad thing. Acting in films has become in many ways better than it was decades ago thanks to the advent of method acting and other new acting techniques. However, there is still something enchanting about watching old silent films and seeing closeups to the faces of actors and actresses who have long since passed away. They seem like ghosts; we see them, but we can't hear them and can't touch them. It is an allure that can drive modern audiences mad, if only they would pay attention.
Tonight, I would like to bring forwards a lost gem of early Chinese cinema. A film that was made in 1934 by the Lianhua Film Studio, the first in Shanghai. To put that in perspective, this film was made before the invasion of China by Japan, before the Chinese Civil War, before Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. Despite the turmoil of the various wars that plagued 20th century China and the Cultural Revolution, one copy of this film survives. It is badly damaged; the film is scratched, the picture jumps around where frames have fallen out, and sometimes giant white “X”s appear for a split second on the screen. But still, the film survives, and with it, a film of unparalleled power with an actress of almost divine skill.
The film is simply titled 神女 , pronounced “shennü.” Translated, it simply means “goddess.” And that is what this movie is about, a goddess is human form, played by one of the true jewels of Chinese silent cinema, 阮玲玉, Ruan Lingyu. But perhaps I should clarify her role first. She is not an actual “deity.” For the term shennü has a double meaning: it can mean a goddess, but it is also a slang word for a prostitute. Indeed, Lingyu finds herself in The Goddess as a single mother who must work as a prostitute at night to support her baby son. This introduces the great duality of Lingyu's role. She is both a Goddess of Protection to her son, but also a lowly prostitute working the street.
The movie uses her dual-life to define her character. When we first get a glimpse into her house, we see several shots of objects laying around her room. They are framed like classic Dutch still lifes, and without a word of exposition, they tell us who she is. We first see her dresser, covered with perfume and makeup. Cut to her wall where two dresses are hanging: one plain and simple, the other a fiery garment of seduction. Then, cut to a child's doll. Then, to an empty cradle. The camera moves up where we see Lingyu cradling her baby.
This woman, who goes unnamed, lives in two different worlds. One, a cramped apartment in a dark alleyway, the other, the bustling streets of Shanghai. In the city, there are neon lights and people crowding around department store windows. It is here that Lingyu picks up clients. With her fine garments, big earrings, and beautifully groomed hair, she poses on the side of the street, smoking a cigarette. She confidently struts the streets as she picks up johns. However, back at home, we see her wearily walk up the stairs to her room. Suddenly, she doesn't seem so confident. She looks tired as she enters her house. She immediately lifts her baby up and cradles him again. She stares out the window at the distant lights of Shanghai glowing in the distance.
What we have witnessed is a complete transformation. Using nothing but body language and her aching face, Lingyu presents two characters in just one body. The ability to promote such emotion was coveted in early Chinese cinema. At a time when the rest of the world had already moved on to talkies, silent films still flourished in China, where actors with strong, regional accents who were not always fluent in the Mandarin dialect could still get acting jobs. Actors needed to be able to tell stories with their bodies, and early icons like Lingyu quickly filled the public's eye as a powerful performer.
After our first witness to her transformation, the story continues along much in the same way that it has for millions of women for thousands of years. She is picked up by a gangster who forces her to work for him. He treats her like garbage, comes into her house unannounced to eat her food and drink her tea, and steals her money which he quickly spends or gambles away. She tries to flee, moving into a new neighborhood. She goes to a pawn shop where she gets money so she can buy a new toy for her baby. When she enters her new home, a familiar hat on the mantle reveals that she has not escaped from her new “employer.” Her baby is missing. “The kid? Oh yeah, I sold him for two-hundred bucks,” he casually states.
Such is the control that this man, known only as “Boss,” has over Lingyu's life. He returns her son, but keeps her under his employ, threatening her to not cross him again. From there, the story whisks along. The child gets older and needs to go to school. She has to hide money from her Boss so she can pay for schooling. The kids surround her son in the schoolyard and call him a bastard. But it' s okay, he has Mommy to go to at night. I need not go into how the story is resolved. The true essence of The Goddess is the relationship between Lingyu and her son and Lingyu's two lives. Ultimately, the two lives cannot coexist, and we the audience know this. So we savor the happy moments that the pair share. The best scene is when one day he shows her how his teacher taught him calisthenics that day in school. He demonstrates how to do a proper squat exercise, then teaches his mom. She joyously does so. Her smile is so bright, we are convinced that she is barely holding back tears of joy. She collapses on top of him, and the two hug. Blissfully, she says, “Mommy's not going out tonight.”
These are the scenes that make us love Ruan Lingyu, and make us mourn her tragic life. Born in Shanghai in 1910, she was married off at age 16 and began her acting career the same year to provide for her family. She quickly became an icon and achieved great fame and critical acclaim. She starred in a number of social dramas that contained suffering women from different classes, including Three Modern Girls, Little Toys, and, of course, The Goddess. However, with her great popularity came public scrutiny from the tabloids. She was so vilely attacked when details of her upbringing and personal life were uncovered, that on March 8, 1934, the same year that The Goddess was released, Ruan Lingyu ingested an overdose of barbiturates and died. It is said that her suicide note contained the line, “Gossip is a fearful thing.” Her death rocked the nation. Her funeral procession was reported to be three miles long. Lingyu didn't go to her grave alone; three women committed suicide during her funeral.
Although she never starred in any sound films and will therefore never hear her voice, we will always have her face. We will have her piercing performances that challenged and dared her audiences to continue watching. You know, it's funny. The night that I first watched The Goddess, I had previously watched Frank Capra's It Happened One Night with my family. It wasn't until later that I realized that both films were made in the same year. Then it struck me that Claudette Colbert had won the Academy Award for Best Actress for playing a socialite on the run in the latter. The most challenging part of that role was her acute ability to wake up in bed with her hair and makeup perfect. She didn't hold a candle to the performance of the Goddess. Sadly, one was forgotten and abandoned in a film archive. It is our duty as film lovers to make sure that this masterpiece of cinema is saved and respected for its brilliance, its daring, and its amazing performance by a doomed actress, destined to wonder the streets of our hearts and consciences forever.