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Profiles: Ruan Lingyu

Ruan Lingyu

Ruan Lingyu

Short Bio
Considered one of the finest, most talented, and most beautiful actresses in China during the silent era, Ruan Lingyu made 29 films that we know of today, though only 8 are still extant. Her career spanned less than 10 years, yet she is still consider the icon of Chinese silent cinema. Often the heroine–playing strong, independent and modern women–,her life story is just as tragic as her most memorable roles. Constantly hounded by the press and with her private life in ruin, she committed suicide on March 8, 1935 at the mere age of 24. Literally hundreds of thousands of people mourned at her wake, with a funeral procession 5 kilometers long.

Stanley Kwan directed a film tribute to her, Yuen Ling-yuk / Center Stage, starring Maggie Cheung as Lingyu.

Ruan Lingyu

Ruan Lingyu

Selected Filmography

Bu Wancang – Yi jian mei / A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931) as Hu Zhuli (Julia)
Jin Yan stars as Hu Luting, a military academy graduate now under General Shi’s command. His academy friend, Bai Lede, stays in Shanghai and falls in love with Luting’s sister Zhuli, played by Lingyu. Lede promises to marry her, but soon leaves to visit Luting, who has in turn fallen in love with Shi’s daughter. Lede meets the damsel, and instantly forgets about the fiance he left behind. The love triangle further complicates itself when Zhuli decides to follow her man, only to discover his unfaithfulness.

Bu Wancang – Yao hua qi xue ji / The Peach Girl (1931) as Miss Lim
The Peach Girl again pairs up Lingyu, as a poor servant girl, with Jin Yan (also a silent film superstar), as a rich landlord’s son, this time in a love story that also acts as a criticism against social discrimination and feudalism. The pairing of Lingyu and Jin Yan feels natural, not only because of their equal stardom, but also because of their resonant performances. Yes, the message is strong and powerful, but Bu’s political statements would mean nothing if not for the pair. Why the two were not paired up more often is beyond me.

Sun Yu – Xiao wanyi / Small Toys (1933) as Sister Ye
Set during Depression-Era China and the Sino-Japanese War, Small Toys follows Lingyu as Ye, a wife and mother of two who is famous for her ability to create childrens’ toys which her husband sells in the city. The war extends right into their backyard, and, struggling with poverty and a life already difficult by any standard, Ye and her family face many tragedies. Ye eventually winds up in the city, still making her toys. But in a modern world, few are still interested in her creations.

Impressive war sequences and montages. Weird though, that Lingyu plays Li Lili’s mother, despite being only 5 years her senior.

Wu Yonggang – Shen nu / The Goddess (1934) as The Goddess
Likely Lingyu’s best film and finest performance. It is impossible not to be dismayed by the loss of this actress at such a young age after seeing this movie. You should also read this review.

Cai Chusheng – Xin nü xing / New Woman (1934)
Lingyu plays a nameless woman who works as a music teacher at a small school. Her true passion, however, is writing, and she sends a manuscript of her novel to a publisher. In a world where men rule, and women are seen as fit only for the home, Lingyu’s character faces many obstacles on her way to success, which include more than a couple dirty propositions and fabricated scandals. Yet she perseveres and fights for her future, hoping to gain independence from men and from a society that undermines women.

What is most remarkable, or creepy, about this film, is not Lingyu’s steadfast and emotional portrayal of her character–the quintessential modern woman Lingyu often plays–but rather, how the film’s events (at the end) are so similar to Lingyu’s own fate. Watching the movie unfold knowing Lingyu’s own life gives the film an even more tragic feel.

Zhu Shilin – Guo feng / National Pride (1935) as Zhang Lan
Lingyu plays a more traditional woman in this film, but retains many of the characteristics of her other roles. As the older sister of a pair of siblings studying in Shanghai, Lingyu plays the voice or reason and good sense, warning her sister of the hazards of modern life and the pitfalls of succumbing to its materialism. Though the film falls into didacticism (even resorting to a lecture from the intertitles), this is Lingyu’s last role, released a year after her death, and deserves to be seen.

Ruan Lingyu

A scene with her son in The Goddess

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)



November 2020