Friday 4 July 2008

The Goddess (1934)

Apparently the first Chinese sound film came as early as 1930, but silent films continued on. While the technology was available to make sound movies, it wasn't necessary available to show them, especially in the rural areas of China, where much of the population lived. Also, the many dialects spoken in the country made it difficult to make the switch, as it still does to a much lesser degree: Chinese films being made in Mandarin but Hong Kong films being made in Cantonese, for instance. That reason doesn't hold up quite as well as the technological one though, as this film has very few words and the few title cards we see are hardly necessary given that the story is ably told purely through the acting anyway.

This one is something of a legend, partly because the leading lady, one of China's greatest actresses of the time, took her own life a year later at the age of 24. She's Ruan Lingyu and this makes two of her films that I've seen in the last month, TCM having already treated us to The Peach Girl.

She plays an unnamed prostitute, who works for the money needed to raise her baby son. One night, she takes refuge from a police crackdown in the nearest house with an open door, only to find herself saved from arrest by a jolly but dangerous gang boss, who promptly takes over her life. To escape him, she moves but he tracks her down and to reinforce why she shouldn't do it again, he suggests that he's sold her baby son for $200. From there we watch as the pair grow up, with the girl not just hiding herself from the police but her proceeds from the boss, so that she can give her son an education.

Ruan Lingyu was hugely popular and her funeral rivalled that of western legends like Rudolph Valentino. Her funeral procession reportedly ran for three miles and three women committed suicide over her death. As we know well nowadays though, just being popular or being an icon has no real correlation to being any good. Ruan Lingyu patently was, though there are a couple of points here, usually associated with her thinking for a moment, where that talent lapses. Mostly she shows a tremendous amount of subtletly and dances through a whole string of emotional states.

She shows us a great range as an actress. She's good as both the desirable sex object, but a weary one putting on a show. She's even better as a mother, alternating between loving, protective and proud, as the circumstances decree. She has a talent for subtle facial expression but, if it doesn't sound dubious for an actress playing a prostitute, she does great things with her body too. Perhaps her personal life at the time helped to find an easy way to appear weary. Beyond her talent though, there are other charms here too. Whoever plays her son as a schoolboy is excellent, though I don't know his name. He's no Jackie Coogan, but then nobody was. He's better than most child actors though.

There's plenty of social commentary and depth with a fascinating exotic angle. As you'd hope for a 1934 silent film, the techniques are solid. The editing benefits from breakthroughs throughout world cinema of the time. The camerawork is interesting, especially when Lingyu's character feels driven or emotional. I particularly enjoyed the various ways that the scenes in which she picked up clients were shot. What surprised me most though was how effective a children's talent show could appear when we don't hear any voices. These children are dynamic and expressive, and probably all the more so for being silent.

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