Having played a number of emotionally draining female parts in her fledgling career, and also a victim of tabloid gossip after a salacious private life, Ruan Lingyu took her own life at the tender age of 25. ‘Goddess’ is the best and most readily available testimony to her acting talent, as she plays a prostitute dedicated to improving the life of her son. It was certainly one of the most progressive films of it’s time, and director Wu Yonggang had a reputation for making films with a left-wing slant. Compare this with films made during this decade in the United States where the Hays Code would have put paid to any director daring to make a prostitute a sympathetic character in a film. The title is ironic of course, a well known euphemism, and Ruan Lingyu’s nameless ‘heroine’ tries to balance her roles of prostitute and mother. She only takes this occupation up to provide for her son the life she never had, and it is later acknowledged that society has failed the women who have taken to the streets.
Fate plays her a poor hand when, on the run from the police who have ordered a clampdown on Shanghai’s prostitutes, she stumbles into a small time gangster’s headquarters, who hides her. However, he then considers her his property and that she is forever in debt to him. He takes most of the money she makes on the streets, threatens her son if she doesn’t do as he says, as well as assault her when he feels like it. Managing to put aside some money, she enrols her son into a private school. However her reputation is well known – neighbours gossip and refuse to let their children play with her son, who call him a ‘bastard’ and a child ‘from a bad family’. The final humiliation occurs during a talent show, during which every parent whispers about the dubious morality of the mother. The head teacher receives numerous complaints from parents and feels obliged to expel the boy but changes his mind after visiting. He can see she’s a good mother, and only works on the streets to provide for her son, and he senses her shame about what she does for a living. However, the fellow teachers and parents fail to be as sympathetic, concerned about the damage to the reputation to the school. The head teacher’s refusal to expel the boy loses him his job. In the film’s tragic denouement, the gangster steals the money the mother has been saving to fund his gambling. He refuses to give the money back, and hits her when she persists in asking for the money back. At the end of her tether, devastated, she hits him with a wine bottle, killing him.
As Yonggang has told us constantly throughout the film, society is unsympathetic towards its marginalised individuals. Even the judicial system fails to consider the circumstances behind the gangster’s death; his mistreatment of her, and that her actions were in self-defence. Sentenced to twelve years, her saviour becomes the head teacher who then offers to adopt her boy and raise and educate him. In her confinement, her solace is the thought that her boy will have a better future without being tainted by his mother’s reputation.
In her defining role, Runa Lingyu delivers one of the most moving acting performances ever seen. Yonggang helps with this, using numerous facial close-ups to reveal her heartbreak, notably when her gossiping neighbours discuss her moral standing during the talent show. He also contrasts the small village she lives in with the vibrancy of Shanghai, making it appear alluring, yet sordid. Perhaps this contrast comprises part of his agenda of showing his human side of prostitution – the village she resides in represents her responsible motherhood, and the bright lights of Shanghai represent her exploitation by her pimp and society. Much of the pre-Fifth generation Chinese cinema remains lost or unavailable, more so in terms of silent cinema. ‘Goddess’ was shown as part of the China Cinema 2007 season that has been rolled out nationwide. Several other films will be reviewed in due course.