Ruan Lingyu delivered one of the greatest performances in silent cinema, and yet to Western audiences, she is almost completely unknown.
Up until the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the city in 1937, Shanghai was the thriving, cosmopolitan cultural heart of China. The first Chinese film was made in Shanghai in 1905 and, for the next couple of decades, costumed retellings of traditional tales dominated the industry. Then, in the ‘30s, filmmakers like Sun Yu and Cheng Bugao started to make gritty, realistic movies about the struggles of the lower class. Perhaps the greatest of these films is Wu Yonggang’s 1935 masterpiece The Goddess, featuring an absolutely heartbreaking performance by Ruan. You can watch it above.
On paper, the story of The Goddess could easily be mistaken for films by Josef Von Sternberg or G.W. Pabst – a “fallen woman” weepie where the protagonist suffers for the sins of hypocritical society. Ruan plays the nameless lead, a beautiful, impoverished woman forced to sell her body to feed and educate her son. She soon falls in with The Boss, a porcine, dissolute gangster who serves as her pimp. She scrapes and struggles to keep her son out of the same gutter where she finds herself trapped. Yet, at every step, she and her son are taunted and shunned. When she spends everything she has to put her son into a good school, the child is expelled simply because the other parents don’t approve of her. "Even though I am a degenerate woman," she begs to the school board, "don't I have the right as a mother to raise him as a good boy?"
While silent film acting tended towards the histrionic, Ruan’s performance is naturalistic while still having an emotional rawness that few actors could match. Just watch the scene where the protagonist is watching her son perform during a school play. Her expression of unadulterated parental pride slowly curdles as she hears vicious whispers from nearby hausfraus. Like Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, Ruan has a wounded beauty that simply rivets you to the screen.
Like many of the characters she played, Ruan came from humble beginnings and had perpetual romantic trouble. When her complicated personal life became the fodder for press, she took an overdose of sleeping pills on March 8, 1935, leaving behind a note that read, “Gossip is a fearful thing.” She was only 24. Ruan’s funeral procession was over three miles long and three women were reportedly so distraught over her death that they committed suicide. The funeral even ended up on the front page of the New York Times who called it “the most spectacular funeral of the century.”
The Goddess will be added to our list of Great Silent Films, part of our larger collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.