A devoted mother supports her child through prostitution. Despite being domineered by a gangster called ‘the Boss’, she squirrels away part of her earnings in order to give her young son an education. Gossip about the mother’s profession soon begins to spread around and, despite the kindly headmaster’s protests, leads the school board to expel the boy. Distraught and finding her savings stolen and gambled away, the mother kills the Boss in a fury. Imprisoned for murder, the mother is partly consoled as the headmaster promises to take the boy under his wing.
When the 24-year-old actress Ruan Ling-yu was buried in 1935, the funeral procession stretched for five kilometres around Shanghai. Several female fans reportedly followed her in suicide, one leaving a note that read: ‘If Ruan Ling-yu is dead, what else is there to live for?’ (cited in Meyer 2005: 163). The legacy of Ruan’s powerful screen presence is symbolic of the social and political struggles of its era. Partly, this is down to the roles: a parade of tragic females, trapped by circumstance into self-destruction, unhappiness and often suicide. Partly it is that these roles closely mirrored the actress’ own chaotic life. Partly it is the staggering scale of her fame and fan devotion. The rest is down to her undeniable skill as an actress.
Much discussion of Ruan tends to dwell on the biographical: a disadvantaged background in a rapidly changing China, a victim of abusive relationships, celebrated by adoring fans and the target for salacious press gossip. Her popularity and early suicide on International Women’s Day compounds the tragedy, adding an additional poignancy to her screen roles. That Ruan’s life experience mirrors her celebrated roles is a terrible irony, though often a distraction from her achievements as a performer. Moreover, comparisons with Stanley Kwan’s 1991 palimpsest film Center Stage, starring Maggie Cheung as Ruan, further complicate a modern reading of The Goddess. Here, we shall step back from the biography to analyse the film’s ideological legacy and how this is embodied in Ruan’s performance.
Shanghai in the early 1930s was a hub of opposing social forces: feudalistic tradition remained stubborn in a period of enforced modernisation and upheaval. Western influence made the city the so-called Paris of Asia while Japanese invasion had already been attempted and would soon recommence. Governance of the city came from the ruling nationalists (the KMT) whose main endeavour was to crush the influence of the growing Communist Party, largely through the aid of criminal gangs. Shanghai was therefore a metropolis of extremes: the glamour of decadent capitalism, the high life and movie stars rubbed up against violent criminality, corruption at high levels and appalling poverty.
Perhaps in keeping with these contradictions, the Lianhua Film Company was founded in 1930 by Luo Mingyou, a nationalist supporter who employed left-wing directors and writers. The result was a series of roles for Lianhua’s star actress that alternate between conservative and anti-traditional principles, with The Goddess a clear example of the latter.
The left was particularly influenced by the May Fourth Movement, the revolutionary group that rebelled against feudalistic Confucianism and called for a modern nation that would break from tradition and engage with Western ideas. The emancipation of Chinese women was a priority. As a still young and hugely popular medium, cinema was an ideal form to express radical ideologies. The KMT ban on representations of the Communist Party on screen led to Ruan’s directors ‘disguising the political nature of the plots and presenting them as melodramatic soap operas. The messages were clear, but the endings usually hued to the KMT party line’ (Meyer 2005: 41). Thus, while The Goddess has a perhaps narratively convenient ending, there is much that suggests its Marxist intention, most prominently the absence of character names.
In her analysis of gender representation in pre-Maoist Chinese film, Shuqin Cui asserts:
“The image of ‘modern woman’ as an embodiment of national enlightenment implies rejection of sociocultural tradition and acceptance of the advent of modernity. The modern woman as a self, however, is torn between the given identity and a problematic reality. In chaotic circumstances, when the nation undergoes international humiliation and domestic turmoil, the metaphor of nation-as-woman signifies a homeland under the pressure of foreign violation or civil division.” (2003: xiii)
Thus, The Goddess operates on both a literal level, as a Chinese woman trapped by an oppressive society who seeks emancipation through education (a May Fourth ideal), and on a wider symbolic level, as contemporary China itself. This dichotomous self-image of the nation as prostitute and devoted mother sits at the heart of the film’s complex ideology.
The ‘Goddess’ of the title signifies the duality of both a celebration of motherhood (an ironically Confucian ideal) and a Chinese euphemism for a sex worker. The opening image is of a sculpture of a nursing woman and child, followed by a still of the beaming mother and son, which leads into a shot of Shanghai’s flashing neon lights. Further parallels are drawn explicitly throughout by the intertitles, while the mise en scène juxtaposes exteriors and interiors where the streets represent the prostitute and the home the mother. The spatial shift also signifies both modernity and tradition. Prostitution was indeed rife during the period, though the film conspicuously offers no sense of this as degrading, but as a necessary evil in order for the mother to ensure a better future for her son. Crucially, for the social concept to work, The Goddess avoids analysis of how the mother’s situation has come about and never judges her. Instead, the spectator is asked to condemn the different social classes that have together cornered her into this lifestyle: the Boss’ feckless, destructive and parasitical attitudes and the neighbours’ sanctimonious disapproval.
William Rothman’s analysis of the film suggests that the selfless values endorsed by the headmaster are already perfectly articulated by the mother: ‘she is not on a quest of a self because she does not doubt that she already has or is a self’ (Rothman 2004: 63). It is the male characters who have an ideological development to make in order to reach narrative fulfilment, not the mother. It can perhaps be added that the use of the form of melodrama would have targeted any ideological message at a largely female audience.
As a reductive portrayal of female duality, a mother/whore depiction is of itself nothing new but The Goddess takes the archetypes usually portrayed as opposites and blends them into a sympathetic and believable whole. The film successfully depicts the mother’s lifestyle that avoids erotic cliché. Selling herself is a chore, with the camera lingering over shots of feet, to emphasise the laborious aspect of streetwalking. Her weariness on her return home is evident.
Rothman contrasts Wu’s presentation of Ruan on-screen with much of classic Hollywood’s portrayal of the female and suggests that the film is refreshingly free of an eroticised presentation of the main character, considering the mother’s profession. He cites the sequence where she makes up in preparation to walk the streets, noting the absence of a typical point of view shot that would allow us to linger over the star’s reflected image as she looks provocatively into the camera. The effect mocks ‘our guilty wish to reduce her to an object’ (2004: 60).
Only the headmaster ever reaches out to touch her in a way that Rothman reads as potentially erotic (2004: 67). This is arguably a stretch, as he seems to represent less a patriarchal than a developing moral authority; the embodiment of a modern, educated society that recognises its responsibility to its disadvantaged. He notably wears a Western suit in contrast to the rest of the school board when he resists their calls to expel the boy to save their reputation. Conversely, the traditionally dressed Boss’ relationship with the mother seems oddly free of lust. He demands her obedience and is unconcerned at the misery this brings her but their relationship seems oddly chaste, as if he is a demanding, overgrown baby placing himself as a cuckoo in her nest. The mother (and by extension through her other surviving screen roles, Ruan) can be read as an early twentieth-century feminist icon.
However, challenging The Goddess’ proto-feminist credentials, Cui notes a male hand at work: writers and directors reinforcing the traditional uneven gender divide by depicting an ‘enlightened saviour stooping to help an unawakened female figure’ (2003: 13). Indeed, the mother is caught between three male figures: the unenlightened boss, the principled headmaster and the boy she hopes to advance.
Similarly, Rey Chow observes that many Chinese male authors of the period looked to the suffering woman as symbolic of their nation as ‘feminized because weak, passive, invaded and tragic’ (in Berry and Farquar 2006: 121). The camera may discretely avoid fetishising her but ‘the overall male narrative point of view is clear’ (ibid: 122). Perhaps then, the political impetus undermines the enunciation of a truly female perspective.
Nonetheless, Berry and Farquhar highlight the film’s use of female subjectivity to articulate a vision of a possible future, concluding that, ‘if Ruan herself embodies a China that cannot act now, she also acts as a channel for the expression and articulation of hopes for future agency’ (ibid: 124).
Overall, whether a Marxist or feminist paradigm, the film’s success as both metaphor and melodrama hinges on the tremendous subtleties of Ruan’s performance, of which there are numerous examples. For instance, when the Boss imposes his ‘protection’, her whole body stiffens in fear. A fleeting, hysterical laugh is quickly choked down and Ruan looks like a caged animal.
Later, at the school performance, sat next to the mother, the censorious neighbour scowls and begins to gossip. Awareness creeps in and the mother’s face clouds as delight shifts to fear. During the headmaster’s visit, subjective shots are exchanged and he notes the truth in the gossip as to her income from the cheongsams hanging up on the wall. Ruan’s face crumples. Her protest at his declaration that the boy must leave is passionate and forceful, making believable the headmaster’s change of heart.
Finally, when confronting the Boss with his theft, Ruan explodes with all the primal force of a furious mother whose child is in danger. Having dominated her throughout with his size and aggression (sometimes aided by memorable cinematography such as the shot of the cowering mother framed between his legs), he now seems genuinely alarmed at her passion. Illustrating his perspective, she approaches the camera with a bottle in hand, subjecting the spectator to the intensity of her rage.
Rendering shame, joy, despair, wrath or resignation, Ruan Ling-yu’s screen roles are reflective of the period’s crucible of contradictions: an era so unbalanced that it could not last. Full Japanese invasion was imminent, and the upheavals of the Mao era would soon follow. The final image of The Goddess is of the mother locked away surrounded by darkness, smiling beatifically at the superimposed image of her son. She rejects the possibility of ever seeing him again, but at least hopes that he will have a better future. The scene is not a happy ending and would be difficult for any actress to carry off. If a melodrama can be said to possess restraint and subtlety, it is to be found here.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: China. Production Company: Lianhua Film Company. Director and Scenarist: Wu Yonggang. Cast: Ruan Ling-yu (the mother), Zhang Zhizhi (the Boss), Li Keng (the son), Li Junpan (the headmaster).]
Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China on Screen, Columbia University Press, 2006.
Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography & Contemporary Chinese Cinema, New York, Columbia University Press, 1995.
Shuqin Cui, Women Through the Lens, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2003. Jonathan Fenby, The Penguin History of Modern China, Penguin, London, 2008.
Richard J. Meyer, Ruan Ling-Yu: The Goddess of Shanghai, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2005.
William Rothman, The ‘I’ of the Camera: Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.