Wu Yonggang (director)
BFI Film (studio)
24 April 2017 (released)
16 May 2017
This iconic 1934 Chinese silent drama is all the more poignant as the tragic story of its heroine, a ‘fallen woman’ referred to as the Goddess, somewhat echoes the real life tragic story of actress Ruan Lingyu who committed suicide at the age of 24.
Here, the Goddess of the title has a double meaning… for at the one hand it refers to the protective goddess full of motherly love, while on the other hand it refers to the goddess as a prostitute (in Chinese slang, ‘Goddess’ was a euphemism for prostitute). The story tells of a young woman (whose name we never learn) and her baby son living in ramshackle accommodation. At nighttime, when the baby sleeps in its cradle, the woman makes herself look alluring and takes to the streets of the busy city centre while a kindly neighbour looks after the child. Standing at street corners and smoking a cigarette while ‘looking for someone or something’ gives a clear indication of the woman’s profession. During one night, the local police sweep the streets in a raid and the woman first manages to hide in a dark alleyway before a gambler called Zhang (Zhang Zhizhi) takes her into his room and asks her to stay for the night as a sign of gratitude for not having betrayed her to the law. She agrees and the next morning returns to her little room, exhausted and miserable. But Zhang follows her and together with two of his dodgy pals they intrude and he makes it clear that from now on she is his ‘possession’. In her desperation she realises there’s no way out but when it emerges that Zhang fritters her hard-earned money away in gambling dens she sees but one solution to escape the situation: together with her child she flees to another part of town to start a new life!
Unfortunately, another part of town is still too close and Zhang manages to track her down, mock-kidnapping her little boy and holding her to ransom. Finally understanding that she cannot escape the clutches of the vile Zhang (who, with his tubby appearance and strange haircut, resembles a certain North Korean leader…) she is nonetheless headstrong enough to make plans for her now 6-year old son Shuiping’s (Li Keng) school education. In order to achieve this, she hides some of her meagre earnings behind a loose brick in her living room wall. At first, the plan seems to work but soon tongues start wagging and during a school play some parents make it known to her that her presence is not appreciated… before writing a letter to the school board asking for Shuiping to be expelled as a pupil with a mother like her only disgraces the school. When the headmaster pays a visit to the young woman’s place he changes his mind however after he comes to learn that her motherly love is sincere. Unfortunately the remaining members of the school board disagree with his sentiments and Shuiping finds himself expelled after all, leading to the schoolmaster’s resignation. Once again, the Goddess realises that the only way to escape her domestic prison and her reputation is to leave town altogether and start a new beginning elsewhere, in a place where nobody knows her and where she can provide Shuiping with a suitable education.
Alas, it is not to be as in the meantime Zhang has discovered the hiding place of her money and gambled it away. After an angry confrontation she kills him by smashing a bottle over his head. The Goddess is sentenced to twelve years in prison while her son is sent to an orphanage. When the old schoolmaster reads about her case in the newspaper, he visits her in prison and promises to take her son away from the orphanage and see to it that he will get a good private education. Grateful for his actions, the woman begs the former schoolmaster to tell her boy that she has died once he is older, so that he doesn’t have to live with the stigma of having a mother like her. In the last scene, she looks up at the wall in her prison cell, finally at peace over the knowledge that unlike her, her son will have a bright future ahead of him…
This is Ruan Lingyu’s film and although her performance is subtle she manages to add nuances and layers to her portrayal of the unhappy title character. Filled with pathos, certain aspects of the film resembled the real circumstances of the tragic Ruan, who was involved with a gambler (ironically also called Zhang!) before her affair with a Shanghai tea tycoon led to more heartbreak and public scandal. Unlike women like Louise Brooks for example, Ruan – unlike other headstrong and independent actresses of her generation – was very much a victim of traditional Chinese society of its day and unable to cope any longer with media pressure ended her life only one year after The Goddess was released.
The film (in DVD format only) boasts a new score by the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra and an 8-page booklet).