One month in and it is spreading up into my neck from my right arm. Dictated reviews will be continuing until I know more about what I am dealing with.
The ‘tart with a heart’ is one of the most recognizeable character tropes in fiction. When I first read up about The Goddess I thought that I might see a very early incarnation of this stock character; instead I saw a prostitute depicted in a very different light.
The fact that the unnamed main character has turned to prostitution to support herself and her son is very matter of fact. The film square the places the blame for her situation and everything that follows on society. In particular, the society of Shanghai. This booming city depicted as never sleeping with fog in the day and bright lights at night.
I have seen critiques of this film which say that Shanghai and the accompanying society are the only bad guys of this film. That the gambler who terrorises the prostitute, steals her money and generally makes her live a life of fear is just a symptom of the toxic society. I found myself hurling expletives at the screen as he bullishly took all he could from her, but I see their point.
The fact that this film is silent doesn’t really matter, Ruan Lingyu is able to recapture your attention the moment it begins to waver due to the lack of dialogue and ambient sounds. Knowing that the actress later killed herself at the tender age of 24 just adds to the tragedy depicted in the film.
Thanks to The Goddess I want to know more about Ruan Lingyu so will be double billing this with Centre Stage in order to learn more. As for now I’m greatly impressed that in 1934 a film such as this could be made. In terms of context this film was released around the time that the U.S. film industry was slapped by the Hays Code. There’s no way a film such as The Goddess could have been made in the U.S. and still found a way to blame the society rather than the individual.
Sad thing is a lot of prejudice that we see in this film still exists to this day. I can imagine the parents of my own secondary school (both where I taught and where I went myself) exhibiting similar behaviour when learning that their child is friends with the child of a prostitute.
The idea of someone being killed by the press is so common nowadays. It’s something that we better about when any celebrity (actor, athlete, musician etc.) dies prematurely having been hounded by journalists. Having now watched both The Goddess and Centre Stage it is very clear that this was the same with 24 year old (25 if you are Chinese) Ruan Lingyu. It is just despicable that this was happening 80 years ago and still continues to this day.
The interesting thing about Centre Stage is that they decided not to play as a straight biographical film. Instead you have to three threads of film all intertwining to make one cohesive whole.
First we have the regular reenactments featuring a stellar Maggie Cheung in the title role (her retirement from acting 10 years ago is a huge loss to Chinese cinema). This is the main part of the film. Interweaving with this are real excerpts from the films of Ruan Lingyu as well as documentary footage/interviews with the cast, crew, historians and people who actually knew Ruan Lingyu.
By doing this they really are lending credence to their re-enactments. It is a well known saying that you should never know how the sausage is made, but in the case of Centre Stage is fantastic to see some of the behind the scenes footage. Even if some of them were clearly choreographed for the sake of story.
I think there are very few of us who able to understand how Ruan Lingyu would have been feeling there any point in this film. In many ways she was a very strong woman, but also fragile. At this time China was undergoing so much and the pressure she would have felt to be this beacon of modern womanhood must have been overwhelming.
What gets me is how she was singled out by the press because she dared to star in a film that depicted the press as monsters. They chose to pick an easy target to destroy as they could not accept the mirror being shown to them.
She was by no means the first Chinese movie star to take their own life; she knew an actress who had done this at age 21 a few years earlier. Ruan Lingyu, however, was the first megastar to do so. So many of her films are now considered lost. The number that survive appear to be somewhere in the region of 6 to 8 with dozens lost to the ages. Who knows what she could have accomplished after the age of 24 if she’d not been made such a vicious target.