The Mother and the Whore
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Buy The Goddess on DVD.
The Chinese first became acquainted with the movies through Lumiere's French films and Edison's American films. Before long, Shanghai had its own film industry going. It lasted up through 1937, when the Japanese bombed the city. Throughout that time, one star rose above all others. Her name was Ruan Ling-yu.
Ruan did not see the bombing of her city. She had already seen enough tragedy and committed suicide in 1935 at the age of 24. She had completed 29 films, mostly dramas that emphasized hard times and suffering. The astonishingly beautiful actress was often called the Chinese Greta Garbo, and I can't think of a more fitting comparison.
Still, Ruan's films are virtually unknown in the West. A few dedicated film fans learned a little about her through Stanley Kwan's 1992 film Actress (or Center Stage), starring Maggie Cheung as Ruan and featuring a few vintage clips of Ruan's movies. But even that film only earned a sparse and sporadic US release.
Now, thanks to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, one of Ruan's key films, The Goddess (1934), can finally be seen. If you couldn't get a ticket to the July 11 screening at the Castro, never fear, because the festival is distributing the film on DVD exclusively through its website.
Running about 75 minutes, The Goddess tells the story of a young mother who earns money for her child as a prostitute. One night while hiding from the cops, she has the misfortune to duck into the wrong room. It's occupied by a lowlife gangster type, who decides to make her his property. No matter where she tries to hide, or where she stashes her hard-earned money, he finds it and takes it for himself. When she manages to get her son enrolled in school, the community tries to get him expelled for fear that his mother's lack of morals will rub off on the rest of them.
Strangely enough, the film's cry for tolerance is still timely in today's oppressively conservative environment. You can almost see some of these old-time stereotypes walking around today.
Ruan's performance is so heartrendingly pure that the film is almost unbearable to watch. Her eyes radiate anguish and exhaustion in every frame, and no more so than in the final tragic moments. This great performer lends weight to the argument that the purest films came out in the silent era.
Director Wu contributes some wonderful moments to the film, such as the potentially awkward scenes in which Ruan picks up her johns. We see them only by their feet, or from a discreet overhead shot. Wu sinks his female lead into a realistically shabby street life, with rundown apartments and poorly lit street corners. Of course, one only sees prostitutes as ravishingly beautiful as this in the movies.
While the new DVD is more than welcome in any serious film lover's collection, it is unquestionably a low-budget job. The transfer comes from a backup print (the negative and master print are both gone) and the producers could not afford a digital clean-up. The film is riddled with scratches and blotches and it jumps around furiously from time to time.
The new piano score by Kevin Purrone has its beauties and it matches the tragic force of the film well, but my tolerance for solo piano scores is pretty low; I far prefer DVDs with full orchestral scores.
Viewers can toggle back and forth between two versions of the film, the one with the original Chinese intertitles, and the one with new English translations. The liner notes list a "commentary," which is really just a 16-minute featurette, interviewing with Dr. Richard J. Meyer, Purrone and other technicians who worked on the disc. Meyer's comments appear almost word-for-word inside the liner notes.
Nonetheless, The Goddess is a treasure rich enough to overlook these flaws.