Director: Wu Yonggang 吳永剛
Studio: Lianhua 聯華
Language: Mandarin 普通話
Genre: Silent / Drama
Running Time: 75 minutes
Recommended. If you’ve never seen a silent film before, this is a great way to start.
Released during what can be considered the first boom in the Chinese cinema industry, the 1930s, The Goddess is perhaps the most famous film of the era, and certainly the most accessible, having had numerous Western releases.
The film is thematically typical of the so-called leftist cinema of the era — that of the struggle of ordinary citizens against an unjust and corrupt society. It’s a product of the Shanghai studio system, with all the major cinematic productions of that era emanating from the Lianhua 聯華, Mingxing 明星 and Tianyi 天一 film companies.
Familiar though its themes may be, The Goddess remains a powerful piece of cinema even today.
The film revolves around a woman working as a prostitute in order to provide for her son. Early on, she evades a police sweep by hiding in a man’s room, only for him to suggest she stays the night as payment. As it turns out, this man is a local gambler, who takes control of her life, despite her attempts to escape.
Throughout, her son is her solace, who she is determined to put through school so he does not suffer as she has. Unfortunately, word spreads around the school about her circumstances, and letters are sent to the school principal demanding he take action.
The principal, however, is moved when he goes to visit the woman to determine the truth of the matter. Seeing her devotion to improving her son’s life, he decides against expelling her son. His decision is not accepted by the rest of the school’s staff, however, and he resigns — unable to prevent the expulsion.
Realising that she cannot build a good life for her son where she is, she decides it’s best for them move. However, she discovers the money she’s been hiding away has been stolen by the gambler.
Furious, she confronts him at a gambling den, where he admits to having taken, and spent, the money. With his back turned, she strikes him over the head with a nearby bottle, killing him.
The film ends with her sentenced to jail for 12 years, and her son in an orphanage. The principal, who had been the one of the few in the film to treat her and her son with any humanity, comes by to let her know that he will look after her son. She tells him to tell her son she is dead, rather than let him know the shame of her life.
Although, like many of its contemporaries, the film leans heavily on the melodramatic mode, it is driven by the performance of actress Ruan Lingyu 阮玲玉.
Ruan was one of the stars of 1930s Shanghai and her own life also ended in tragedy. Aged just 24, she committed suicide after a period of intense speculation regarding her private life. Though under different circumstances, perhaps she could relate all too well with the The Goddess in her inability to escape the judgement of those around her.
Despite its age, and mode, The Goddess remains an eminently watchable film — one who’s lessons are (sadly) just as relevant almost 100 years later — and an important piece of Chinese cinematic history.