Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Goddess, Silent Movie DVD of the Week...

...Or whenever the hell I get around to it.
It's been a long time since I've written about my love affair with silent movies, and I hope it was worth the wait. Shot in a 1934, in a style that 25 years latter would be associated with the Italian neo-realists, The Goddess, written and directed by Wu Yonggang, stars the luminous Ruan Ling-yu as the Goddess, Shanghai slang for a prostitute. A single mother, with no other way to support her son, she sells herself on the streets of Shanghai. One night, seeking to avoid arrest in a police sweep, she blunders into the room of a street thug, in the English inter-titles, referred to as the Boss. It's only a matter of time until she finds herself as little more than property of this gangster.
What's most compelling about this film is it's depiction of a woman who, because of her social position, lack of education, and what's seen by Chinese society, as a lack of morals (In one scene, she refers to herself as a degenerate woman.) who has little chance to pull herself out of the downward spiral of her life. It's the love she has for her young son that both ties her to the Boss, who casually threatens to sell the child if she doesn't continue to prostitute herself for his financial benefit, and ultimately, when her son is expelled from his school because of her profession, and the Boss steals the money she had been able to save herself and her son, leads her to murder her oppressor. Like the neo-realists, the Goddess is a stand-in for a suffering lower class, constrained by poverty, exploited by those at the level of the street, as well as societal norms. In the end, the crime she commits liberates her from her pimp, but the prison sentence for that crime, takes her son from her. A son that has been the only fine thing in her life. Sent to prison for 12 years, her son is saved from the orphanage, when the headmaster of the school who had fought, and failed to prevent the child's expulsion, steps in to adopt the boy, and give him the education that he needs if he is to have any chance of a better life than that which his mother had.
Ruan Ling-yu, a major star of the Chinese silent cinema, like Mary Pickford in the United States, had enough power to really be the true creative force behind her movies. Essentially, she ran the production company. Whenever I watch this film, I'm reminded of the line from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. "We had faces then." Silent acting, often ridiculed by modern audiences, when done well is a study in the beauty an expressiveness of the human face. Ruan Ling-yu can, in the blink of an eye, go from a subtle, ambiguous pain, to anger to joy, when in the presence of her son. A wonderful actress, who committed suicide in 1935, a year after this movie was made. She was 24 at the time of her death. She made 29 silent films in her brief career. One can only wonder what great movies she might have made in sound films.
The DVD that I've written about was produced with a grant from Ball State University, in Indiana. I purchased it on eBay. See my blog,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thank TCM for airing this wonderful film a couple of nights ago. What an amazing performance by Ruan Ling-yu. The film was on in the middle of the night so I literally fell asleep at the moment when the "boss" stole pulled out the brick from the wall where the money was hidden. I couldn't stop thinking about the portion that I missed. I wanted to know what I missed. So thank you. I urge anyone interested in silent film to seek out this one....I hope it airs again soon.