It's nice to be surprised by a film or performance that has somehow flown under my radar. This past weekend I watched "The Goddess," a silent film from China from 1934. I first heard of the film while watching "The Story of Film: An Odyssey," by critic Mark Cousins, on Turner Classic Movies. That documentary series is one man's interpretation of the history of film. Instead of looking at film as an American phenomenon, he's looking at how cinema spread across the world and sort of cross-pollinated different film cultures. He spent some time talking about "The Goddess" and its star, Lingyu Ruan, in a recent episode.
|Lingyu Ruan, "The Goddess," 1934.|
In the film she plays a prostitute in modern day Shanghai, trying to support her son and give him a better life. She ends up getting involved with a brutal pimp, but she tries to secretly save extra money for a possible escape. She uses the rest of the money she earns to send her son to a good school; when the other parents discover her secret, they try to force her son out. The Principal tries to intervene on her behalf, but is forced to resign. When the mother decides to leave town with her son, and try to start a new life, she finds her secret money has been stolen by the pimp. She confronts him, he ignores her pleas, and she strikes him over the head with a bottle, killing him.
Sent to jail, the now ex-Principal finds her and tells her he will take care of her son and get him a proper education, leaving her with some comfort.
It's a brutal film. The love she shows for her son, and the compassion of the school Principal, is almost crushed by her circumstances. Today many prostitutes are seen for what they really are, victims and not criminals, and how she defends herself against the pimp would be seen as self-defense. But in this film, in 1934, she's treated like a degenerate criminal.
She even considers herself degenerate, which is one of the most moving parts of this film. Lingyu Ruan portrays a woman who thinks so little of herself, but in reality she is the strongest and most compassionate person in the story. And it's almost a relief when the Principal recognizes her strength.
Sadly this actress committed suicide a year after this film was made. She was subjected to much of the same scorn from the people of China, because she was a film actress, as was her character of a prostitute. I'll be looking for a deeper biography of her and I'd like to see more of her films.