It might seem curious that a “goddess” may be an ethereal protector of life as well as a sex worker… but in this case they are very much inter-twined: the lead character can only achieve one by being the other.
I know not even next to nothing about Chinese culture in the thirties and this film was like entering another cinematic universe with those dancing feet of 42nd Street represent a charming, sugar-coated parallel world in which good things happen to those who wait. Not so here where you may wait a lifetime and never gain happiness: a culture with a conflicted desire to modernise and which was still firmly rooted in the nineteenth century.
In the desperate Shanghai of 1934 there were as many as 100,000 women scraping a living as a prostitute: around one on thirteen… In the year of the Long March Chinese society was in flux as warlords and politicians struggled for control whilst a newly urbanised peasantry lived in squalor. For a society still viewed as relatively guarded in western eyes, it is surprising to find a film of such unflinching honesty.
The Goddess (神女) was showing in the splendid Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’ Southbank as part of this year’s London Film Festival and also as a continuation of the BFI’s Electric Shadows series of Chinese film past and present.
|Another hotel morning...|
The film was famously Ruan Lingyu’s last film as she committed suicide within a year of its completion – she was only 24 and on this evidence a performer of the highest order with a range of controlled, natural emotion that cuts through in a very modern way. If not the Chinese Garbo of legendary cliché but maybe a forerunner of the Isabelle’s Adjani and Huppert: someone who works their interior world very hard and yet gives only glimpses of the powerful turmoil just bubbling below.
|Ruan Lingyu and Zhang Zhizhi|
She’s almost matched by the baby-faced Zhang Zhizhi who plays her pimp, a compulsive gambler and a bully who can smile and smile and indeed be a villain. But he’s not the clichéd control freak and psychotic bully boy; he’s weak and irresponsible another highly believable character.
Then there is the woman’s young son, played by one Shuiping who gives a very good account of himself… dare I say the Chinese Jackie Coogan? No, he’s his own boy.
The film was written and directed by Wu Yonggang who’s screenplay had been partly inspired by his observing prostitutes ‘forced smiles as they greeted customers: what horrors lay behind those phoney faces? Wu had spent time in Hollywood and his experience is clear from any number of clever tracking shots, expert close ups and a wonderful overhead as the woman engages with another client and the two walk off together to heaven knows how much hotel room misery…
The film is unflinchingly frank throughout as the woman seeks to find a way to support her son using the only option open to her. She is almost run in by the police but takes shelter with her soon-to—be protector who starts to make her work more… profitably.
But she wants more than just subsistence; she doesn’t want her boy to suffer for her faults and starts to hide away money in order to enrol him in school.
|Delight at the school play|
For a while she succeeds until gossip becomes too much and the kindly principal investigates to see if the boy’s mother is indeed a woman of ill-repute. She reveals the truth but he is impressed with her determination and willingness to sacrifice all to give her son the best possibly chance in life.
But prejudice is rife and the other school governors are not so open-minded nor are the parents. Meanwhile the gambling-pimp finally finds the stash of money, is he about the throw away the only chance the boy will ever get?
|The Headmaster calls|
No spoilers: Even if this was a Hays dodging pre-code Hollywood film, there would be retribution in store but here the twists and turns have the ring of truth and you’re never certain of the end game as the story plays its course. It remains a genuinely moving experience and a story the resonated strongly for every parent in the room.
Chinese composer Zou Ye’s newly commissioned score moved with subtle grace alongside the film in perfect step courtesy of the thirty-piece English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Chalmers. It was a perfectly judged accompaniment that interwove modern themes with more traditional sequences: a bridge connecting us to the time and the place…
There was long and loud applause at the end from the mixed audience of bearded silent cognoscenti and Jermyn Street bespoke-tailored concert buff-age: we really liked the music but, for most, I would think the vision of Ruan Lingyu will live in the min a while longer.
As Stanley Kwan said in the programme notes: “I was stunned by her performance, which was subtle and rich – an emotional tour de force. It was amazing to me that such a thing could be achieved in silent cinema…”
The Goddess is available in reasonable quality, free-to-view at the Internet Archive, not a patch on this crystal clear restoration though! Catch it if you can: the cinematic world was clearly always bigger than it seemed.