1930s Shanghai, the ‘Paris of the Orient’, the glamorous metropolis with its celebrated ‘10-mile stretch of foreign concessions’ was China’s filmmaking centre. Of all the silent classics produced in this golden era, The Goddess is the best known. It also inspired more music composed and live accompaniments than any other Chinese movie. This has much to do with the leading lady Ruan Lingyu of course. Stanley Kwan’s biopic on Ruan, Centre Stage (1991), landed Maggie Cheung ‘Best Actress’ at the Berlinale.
The famous Ruan Lingyu committed suicide at the height of her career, at barely 25 years of age. The Goddess was her penultimate work. Playing a mother who turns tricks to send her son to school, she captivates as both care-giver and courtesan. Without a doubt, The Goddess was the masterpiece that immortalized her. The West called her ‘China’s Garbo’. But Wu Yonggang, the director, had a more fitting name – ‘the most light-sensitive film’. She can beam and be shrouded in gloom within seconds, or erupt from sorrow into a lunatic’s cackle. When the school principal visits her in jail, her face registers first anger, then disquiet, relief, self-pity and renouncement, before breaking down in tears. Then from despair, she finds escape in imagination. Her portrayal of complex and changing emotions is layered and moving, fully demonstrating the infectious purity of facial close-ups in black-and-white film.
Wu Yonggang’s mastery of filmic language is evident, especially in his quiet and subtle approach to scenes that could easily have been melodramatic. Ruan Lingyu’s three street hustling scenes also feature riveting mise-en-scene. The second, in particular, depicts the whore-client relationship through close-ups of feet shifting in and out of the frame. The protagonist’s dual identity (by night, by day) is succinctly captured in the first few opening shots – cosmetics and chic cheong-sam versus milk bottle, toy and cradle.
The film shows unambiguous sympathy for prostitutes and blames the hypocritical public for social ills, rather than ‘villains’. The principal who resigns after failing to prevent Ruan’s son from being kicked out of school and subsequently promises to raise the child is motivated by guilt, the kind felt by bourgeois intellectuals like the director and the producer. The hand that pats Ruan on the back is a symbol of an apologetic offer of solace and a positive offer of help.