Friday, 21 April 2017

Shanghai Star - The Goddess (1934), BFI DVD

“Older people went misty-eyed when they heard Ruan’s name… She represented a time for them when hopes weren’t jaded, when you didn’t have to talk in double speak, when a revolution promised better lives.” Mark Cousins remembering a recent visit to China.

This one is almost too much, the natural dignity of Ruan Lingyu outstanding in a desperate tale of motherly love against all odds provided by a brutal environment and a society determined that it’s all her fault. This is a third world away from the sweet stories of Hollywood and sees Lingyu’s character employed as a prostitute – a goddess by any other name – and enduring the overbearing “protection” of a crime boss in order to provide for her son.

Even when the kindly head of the school stands up for her he is shouted down by those who cannot see beyond her profession… can’t see even Barbara Stanwyck playing this, not overtly. Yet the Greta Garbo of Shanghai takes it all in her stride and is magnificent.

Ruan Lingyu
Written and directed by  Wu Yonggang, The Goddess is remarkably bold in its subject matter and reflective of a country in flux between the revolutionary forces of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party and the nationalist Kuomintang Party led by Chian Kai-chek who had achieved a temporary ascendancy in Shanghai which clearly allowed the urban creative elite full expression.

In the 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 warlords and politicians struggled for control whilst a newly urbanised peasantry lived in squalor.

Shanghai street-work
The film was one of Ruan Lingyu’s last 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, as with Greta, someone who works their interior world very hard and yet gives only glimpses of the powerful turmoil just bubbling below.

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 still. But he’s not necessarily the clichéd control freak and psychotic bully boy; he’s weak and irresponsible - another believable character.

Zhang Zhizhi - nowhere near as friendly as he looks
Then there is the woman’s son, played by a talented youngling called Keng Li who gives a very good account of himself… The Chinese Jackie Coogan? No, he’s his own boy.

Wu Yonggang’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 more hotel room misery…

Cold hotel morning
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 for him. Not wanting her boy to suffer as she has she starts to hide away money in order to enrol him in school. 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?

Last chance at school?
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 resonates strongly still.

Chinese composer Zou Ye’s newly commissioned score moved graceful alongside the film interweaving modern themes with more traditional sequences: a bridge connecting us to the time and the place… Zou Ye conducted the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra for this recording of a  score commissioned by the KT Wong Foundation, an independent body dedicated to fostering cultural exchange between China and the rest of the World.

Brilliant actor at work
Sadly, Ruan’s personal life was no less complicated than this film and under huge pressure from the press following her complicated love life, she took an overdose and died less than a year after The Goddess. Her death led to questions being asked about the uncontrolled behaviour of the tabloid press and the rights of celebrities to privacy and a life… and we think we’re so different?

The Goddess is extraordinary proof of the talent that was lost.

It’s available on BFI DVD from 23rd April and you can pre-order it directfrom their online shop now!


  1. As you probably know, I'm a massive fan of Ruan - so moving, skilled, dignified. In The Goddess she gives a truly wonderful performance. There's such a difference between her performance here and her earlier films, like 桃花泣血記 The Peach Girl.
    It's great to see that BFI is releasing The Goddess! Too many of the Chinese silents out there are only available in sub-par quality.

    1. I saw it at the London Film Festival a couple fo years back and she is spellbinding! It's great to have this out on DVD and I hope there's more to come - this is such a rewarding film!