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Featuring a quintessential performance by Chinese cinema superstar Ruan Lingyu, The Goddess (1934) is a tragic tale of shame and maternal sacrifice. We are introduced to the central character (Ruan, whom we will call the "Goddess," though she remains unnamed in the film) through a series of close ups of the furnishings of her room: makeup and perfume, elegant dresses, a child's toy and food, a crib. As might be deduced, she is a prostitute, who sells herself on the bustling, neon-lit streets of Shanghai to provide for herself and her infant son.
During a police raid on the district, she finds refuge in the apartment of the "Boss," a street criminal with a weakness for gambling. Quickly recognizing her earning potential, the Boss follows the Goddess to her home and announces that he will assume control of her business affairs. Once he becomes her pimp, the Boss does little to earn his commission.
The Goddess takes her child and flees the city, and ends up in an industrial town suffering economic hardship. Unable to work as a prostitute, she pawns her belongings to survive. Returning to her meager room one day, she finds the Boss waiting, and her son missing. "This is what happens when you try to mess with me," he tells her, before quoting a traditional proverb, "No matter how quickly the monkey flips, it can never break free from the huge monk's grip."
Time passes and the Goddess's child grows up, only to be shunned by others because of his mother's profession. Determined to preserve the child's happiness, and to insure him a respectable future, she begins hiding away portions of her hard-earned money so that she may send the boy to school.
Social prejudices find their way there as well, and the boy is taunted as a bastard. The Goddess enjoys a moment of pride and bliss when her son sings in a talent show, but that brief bit of stolen happiness is taken back when the other parents begin whispering about her profession. After receiving a number of letters of complaint, the principal investigates the boy's household. Although dismayed to learn that the mother is, in fact, a prostitute, he realizes the depth of her love and devotion for the boy. "Even though I am a degenerate woman," she pleads, "don't I have the right as a mother to raise him as a good boy?"
The principal is convinced and argues the case before the school board. In spite of his impassioned argument -- in which the filmmakers' social views are stated outright, in great detail -- the board insists on expelling the boy. The principal resigns in protest.
The Goddess is ready to flee again, when the Boss discovers and takes her stash of money. She confronts him and, willing to die to take care of her son, murders the Boss. She is sentenced to twelve years in prison, and separated from her child. Now locked behind bars, the question arises: Will she ever see her son again? And who will care for his well-being?
The title of the film defies simple translation into English. "Shen nu" or Shenn" is a colloquial term for a prostitute, a word that sounds like a compliment, but is in fact an insult (the closest English equivalents are possibly "tart" or "madame"). Prostitution was quite prevalent in Shanghai, which was believed to have been home to some 100,000 such women at the time of the film's release.
Unlike early Japanese cinema, Chinese silent films are very similar in construction and theme to Western cinema (perhaps because Shanghai was such a multinational commercial hub, prior to its bombing by Japan in 1932). Were it not for the cultural differences, The Goddess might easily be mistaken for a film by G.W. Pabst or Josef von Sternberg. The Goddess is not unlike the so-called "fallen woman" films of the early 1930s such as Blonde Venus (1932), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), and Madame X (1929). In each of these dramas, a self-sacrificing mother is driven into disrepute by her determination to care for her child.
Born in Shanghai on April 26, 1910, Ruan experienced a difficult childhood and by age sixteen had dropped out of school to provide for her family. She became the common-law wife of Zhang Damin, in whose house Ruan's mother worked as a servant, but soon realized that he would not marry her (either because he was a wastrel, or because class consciousness prohibited it, sources disagree).
Ruan was discovered by filmmaker Bu Wancang (aka Richard Poh), who cast her in the film A Couple in Name Only (Gua ming de fu qi, 1927), a drama about a woman seeking to escape from an arranged marriage. Her career foundered for several years, until she signed on with the Lianhua Film Company in 1930. There, Ruan's career was well managed, and she achieved a remarkable rise to popularity, under Bu's direction.
According to Gary Morris in Bright Lights Film Journal, at Lianhua, Ruan "would find her greatest successes in a series of intense female-centered melodramas, many of them engaged with such pressing social issues as poverty, class conflict, prostitution, illegitimacy, women's rights, suicide, and occasionally a political film that grew out of anxieties around Japan's invasion of Shanghai."
After her painful breakup with Zhang, Ruan became romantically involved with a businessman, Tang Jishan. This relationship was also fraught with problems, and the press began to publicize the more prurient details of Ruan's life. At the peak of her career, but in the depths of despair over personal scandals, Ruan committed suicide on March 8, 1935. In her suicide note, she remarked, "Gossip is a fearful thing." The prominent writer Lu Xun took this phrase and made it the title of an article denouncing the media's exploitation of Ruan's personal life.
This presentation of The Goddess was restored by the China Film Archive from the only known surviving print of the film.
In 1992, Maggie Cheung won the Silver Bear (Best Actress) award at the Berlin Film Festival for her portrayal of Ruan in Stanley Kwan's biopic Centre Stage (aka The Actress, 1992).
Producer: Luo Mingyou
Director: Yonggang Wu
Screenplay: Yonggang Wu
Cinematography: Hong Weilie
Cast: Tian Jian, Li Keng, Junpan Li, Lingyu Ruan, Haiqiu Tang, Zhizhi Zhang.
by Bret Wood