Shen nü / The Goddess

Shen nü / The Goddess (1934)

Woman god = Street walker? Obviously, the cover translators were either sexists or failed Chinese class

Director: Wu Yonggang
Writers: Wu Yonggang
Date: 1934

Genre: Drama, Silent
Description: a woman, a hard life, prostitution, Depression-Era China, tragedy

Cast: Ruan Lingyu, Tian Jian, Li Keng, Li Junpan, Tang Huaiqiu

Crew of note:

Runtime: 85 mins.
Color: Black and White

Ruan Lingyu is a single mother and a woman of the night. Yep, a prostitute (take note, in this day prostitution was a taboo subject in China and pretty much everywhere else in the world). Life is difficult in Depression-era China, especially when you have a manipulative, abusive man acting as your self-appointed pimp. He’s also fat and greedy, and isn’t about to let them go. And all she wants is for her son to get an education.

Look through all the films made in or before 1934, and try to find films starring a prostitute. Not just a co-star or tragic role player, but the actual center of the movie. I don’t think you’ll find many. And how many of these films will treat their heroine with as much humanity, with as much grace and understanding as “The Goddess”? Scratch that–look at the title, they’re actually calling her a Goddess, despite having an occupation that is seen with abundant derision and shame.

Yet Ruan Lingyu’s character proves that she is, indeed, a Goddess. She works, despite her shame (and the camera follows suit, with panning down to her feet as she stands on a street corner), not for her own lavishness.. and not even just to make ends meet. All this is to send her son to school, so that he can have a good life that she could otherwise not provide. Her occupation isn’t commendable, but her motives and unflinching desire to give her son everything that she can is overwhelming.

This is the real strength of this film: her character. In a day (in an entire country even!) when women were still seen as pretty dressed up dolls, when single-motherhood was an absurd concept and all women needed a man to survive, The Goddess grants us a woman unlike any other from this era. Faced with tragedy, and even more obstacles that stand in her way (literally blocking her doorway), she does not crumble, does not run away. She works, she fights, she puts on a brave face. After seeing this film, I am sure you will agree: Ruan Lingyu is a Goddess.

In Ruan Lingyu’s short but storied career, many films stand out. However Lingyu as the eponymous Goddess, an appropriate title that she proves she is worth, stands as one of her most memorable roles. She is reknowned for her strong, independent, and “modern” portrayals of women, and this is perhaps one of the best from this era.

things to take note of
Lingyu’s facial expressions
The calm humanism Wu Yonggang’s script and Lingyu’s acting give the main character
Notice how almost every paragraph starts with “Bla bla Ruan Lingyu blabla”?

best moment
Whenever Lingyu is able to make ends meet, and when she’s with her kid

why you should watch this
Ruan Lingyu is a legend of Chinese cinema, and rightfully so. Plus, this is one of her best performances.

rating: 8.8

Plot: C+
Cast: A+++
Cinematography: B
Music: C+
Entertainment: B

similar movies, maybe:
Yuen Ling-yuk / Center Stage, the 1992 movie about her life starring Maggie Cheung
Other tragic films starring Ruan Lingyu, such as:
Xiao Wanyi / Small Toys (1933)
Xin nü xing / New Woman (1934)
Tao hua qi xue ji / The Peach Girl (1931)
and her last film, Guo feng / National Pride (1935)