SHANGHAI GODDESS: RUAN LINGYU

 

 

Ruan Lingyu is the most celebrated actress of the golden age of Chinese cinema. She often played women struggling to come to terms with love, work and survival in the modern city. Hong Kong, Shanghai: Cinema Cities presents six of her films from the 1930s, including Love and Duty 1931 (dir: Bu Wancang), her earliest surviving film, of which a print was discovered in Uruguay in 1994. Director Bu Wancang, an admirer of Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith, draws on American styles and techniques to tell a tragic story of arranged marriage and forbidden love. After starring in 29 films between 1926 and 1935, Ruan Lingyu committed suicide at the age of 24 when her fame was at its peak — 300 000 people followed her coffin through the streets of Shanghai. Her celebrated film The Goddess was remade in Hong Kong in 1938 as Rouge Tears with another Chinese superstar, Hu Die (Butterfly Wu), in the leading role. For Stanley Kwan's exploration of the life of Ruan Lingyu, Center Stage 1992, Maggie Cheung was cast as the great early Shanghai actress. Her performance won the Silver Bear in Berlin. 

Strong women characters are a ubiquitous presence in Chinese cinematic explorations of national identity and the emergence of modern social configurations, although these women are often types: the middle-class housewife, the model worker, the prostitute and the professional or ‘New Woman’. Women’s participation in the film industry in the golden age was largely circumscribed — they were actors rather than directors or scriptwriters. Chinese film historian Shuqin Cui points to:

. . . how early film production frames women’s problems to signify the need for national awakening while using star images to attract audiences; [and] how socialist cinema presents woman as either a victim of class oppression or a beneficiary of national liberation.


In The Goddess, Ruan Lingyu plays a devoted mother who is driven into prostitution to support her son. The opening sequence moves from the bright lights of Shanghai by night to a domestic setting with mother and child, then back to the crowded streets — the baby is in bed and the mother goes to work. Ruan experienced extreme poverty in her childhood. Her widowed mother worked hard to send her child to an elite school. Although worshiped on the screen, Ruan dealt with prejudice in her private life as, at the time in China, film stars were widely regarded as being of loose morals. 

Love and Duty (Lian’ai yu Yiwu) 1931 All ages
6.00pm Sunday 4 March, introduced by Chen Biqiang, Senior Research Fellow, China Film Archive
/ Cinema A / Live musical accompaniment

35MM, 152 MINS, B. & W., SILENT, CHINA, MANDARIN INTERTITLES (ENGLISH SUBTITLES) / DIRECTOR: BU WANCANG / PRODUCER: LI MINWEI / SCRIPT: ZHU SHILIN / ORIGINAL STORY (NOVEL): S ROSEN (HO RO-SE) / CINEMATOGRAPHY: HUANG SHAOFEN / CAST: RUAN LINGYU, JIN YAN, CHEN YANYAN, LI YING / PRODUCTION COMPANY: LIANHUA FILM COMPANY (UNITED PHOTOPLAY SERVICE) / PRINT SOURCE/RIGHTS: CHINESE TAIPEI FILM ARCHIVE

Bu Wancang’s second collaboration with Ruan Lingyu, after directing her 1926 debut Husband and Wife in Name (Guaming De Fuqi), pairs her with famous Korean actor Jin Yan, who plays her forbidden love. Bu directed the popular movie couple in four more films in the following two years. Love and Duty tells the story of Yang Naifan (Ruan Lingyu) who escapes from her arranged marriage to reunite with her first forbidden love Li Zuyi (Jin Yan), then finds herself trapped in poverty and misery. She pays dearly for breaking with feudal tradition and can only conceive of a drastic solution to save her children from disgrace. The film features superb cinematography by Huang Shaofen. Love and Duty was one of the first films produced by the progressive Lianhua Film Company, established in 1930 by Li Minwei — a pioneer of Hong Kong cinema who had moved his first company, Minxin, to Shanghai in 1926 — and Luo Mingyou, who owned and ran an extensive network of movie theatres. Lianhua continued to make silent films well into the 1930s, as many cinemas were not yet equipped for sound. Bu Wancang worked first as a cameraman then a director and producer at Mingxing Film Company. After moving to Lianhua in 1931 he came to prominence with Love and Duty. During the period from 1937 to 1941, called the ‘Orphan Island’ period because the international settlements remained independent of Japanese occupation, Bu directed historical dramas with nationalist themes. When the Japanese took over all of Shanghai, he made a number of propaganda films — including The Opium War 1943 — that criticised European imperialism and promoted a regional economic sphere. Bu was criticised after the war for working with the Japanese and moved to Hong Kong in 1948, directing the epic Soul of China for Yung Hwa Film Company and setting up the Taishan Film Company.

 

Production
still from The Peach Girl (Taohua Qixueji) 1931 / Image courtesy:
China Film Archive, Beijing

The Peach Girl (Taohua Qixueji) 1931 All ages
2.00pm Wednesday 7 March
/ Cinema A / Live musical accompaniment

35MM, 91 MINS, B. & W., SILENT, CHINA, MANDARIN INTERTITLES (ENGLISH SUBTITLES) / DIRECTOR/SCRIPT: BU WANCANG / SCRIPT: HUANG YICUO / CINEMATOGRAPHY: HUANG SHAOFEN /CAST: RUAN LINGYU, JIN YAN, ZHOU LILI, WANG GUILIN / PRODUCTION COMPANY: LIANHUA FILM COMPANY (UNITED PHOTOPLAY SERVICE) / PRINT SOURCE/RIGHTS: CHINA FILM ARCHIVE

The Peach Girl is a tragic love story between Lingu (Ruan Lingyu), a poor peasant girl, and her rich landlord’s son, De’en (Jin Yan). Because of their class disparity, the couple are not permitted to marry, even after Lingu gives birth to a daughter. De’en eventually manages to free himself from his family’s control but by then Lingu is close to death. Huang Shaofen’s cinematography is remarkable and the film resonates with natural imagery. A peach tree planted in Lingu’s early childhood mirrors her fortunes with its seasonal changes. In his critique of Chinese society, director Bu Wancang contrasts rural and urban, traditional and modern, virtue and immorality, justice and injustice, and cruelty and humanity. Under the cover of romantic melodrama, he questions feudal social norms. The production of the film was completed on the night before the Mukden (or September 18) Incident in 1931, the pretext for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Against the background of foreign occupation, such tender love stories would soon be replaced by political and patriotic narratives. 

 

Production
still from Little Toys (Xiao Wanyi) 1933 / Image courtesy:
China Film Archive, Beijing

Little Toys (Xiao Wanyi) 1933 All ages
2.00pm Saturday 10 March
/ Cinema A / Live musical accompaniment

35MM, 82 MINS, B. & W., SILENT, CHINA, MANDARIN INTERTITLES (FRENCH SUBTITLES) / DIRECTOR/SCRIPT: SUN YU / CINEMATOGRAPHY: YU XINGSAN / CAST: WANG RENMEI, JIN YAN, YE JUANJUAN, ZHENG JUNLI, HAN LANGEN / PRODUCTION COMPANY: LIANHUA FILM COMPANY (UNITED PHOTOPLAY SERVICE) / PRINT SOURCE/RIGHTS: CHINA FILM ARCHIVE

Set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Sun Yu’s Little Toys reflects on the fate of China through the character of the film’s tragic heroine. The artisan Ye (Ruan Lingyu) supports her two children by making toys that her husband sells in the city. Her world is shattered by the death of her husband and the disappearance of her son amid fights between rival warlords. Ye migrates with her daughter Zhu’er (Li Lili) to Shanghai but finds she can barely compete with imported toys. Zhu’er is killed during Japanese attacks on the city. Alone, Ye mechanically continues to sell her toys. She gives one to a child who is her lost son; however, if she recognises him, she decides he is better in his new wealthy adoptive family. The trauma of what she has lived through finally pushes Ye over the edge. In the climatic sequence, she frantically implores pedestrians in Nanjing Road (and the film audience) to fight against Japanese aggression. Ruan Lingyu is superb as the ageing Ye marked by life, and is complemented by the vibrant Li Lili, five years her junior. The blending of romantic idealism with harsh realism and social criticism is characteristic of Sun Yu’s oeuvre. One of the first Chinese filmmakers to be trained in the USA, he introduced new montage techniques to the Chinese screen, as seen here in the juxtaposition of toy weapons and real war machines.

 

Production
still from Coming Home (Guilai) 1934 / Image courtesy:
China Film Archive, Beijing

Coming Home (Guilai) 1934 All ages
1.00pm Sunday 11 March
/ Cinema A / Live musical accompaniment

35MM, 83 MINS, B. & W., MONO, CHINA, MANDARIN INTERTITLES / DIRECTOR/SCRIPT: ZHU SHILIN / CINEMATOGRAPHY: ZHUANG YUANJUN / CAST: RUAN LINGYU, GAO ZHANFEI, LI KENG, NIJIDINA / PRODUCTION COMPANY: LIANHUA FILM COMPANY (UNITED PHOTOPLAY SERVICE) / PRINT SOURCE/RIGHTS: CHINA FILM ARCHIVE

After writing a series of successful screenplays for Lianhua, including Love and Duty, Zhu Shilin directed his first film with Coming Home, which focuses on the struggle between two women, one Chinese (Ruan Lingyu) and the other Russian, for the love of one man. A Chinese business man remarries abroad believing that his wife in Shanghai is dead, only to find otherwise when he returns home with his second spouse. His attempt to keep the two marriages a secret fails. Promoting resistance to foreign influence and nationalist ideals, Coming Home is one of the few Ruan Lingyu movies with a happy ending. The star was herself unhappy in love, her relationships sometimes abusive. Her constant fights with former long-term partner Damin Zhang over money overshadowed her

newly found romance with tea merchant Tang Jishan, a womaniser with a weakness for film stars.

 

Production
still from Goddess (Shennü)
1934 / Image courtesy: China Film Archive, Beijing

The Goddess (Shennü) 1934 All ages
6.00pm Friday 9 March
/ Cinema A / Live musical accompaniment

35MM, 78 MINS, B. & W., SILENT, CHINA, MANDARIN INTERTITLES (ENGLISH SUBTITLES) / DIRECTOR/SCRIPT: WU YONGGANG / PRODUCER: LI MINWEI / CINEMATOGRAPHY: HONG WEILIE / CAST: RUAN LINGYU, LI KENG, ZHANG ZHIZHI / PRODUCTION COMPANY: LIANHUA FILM COMPANY (UNITED PHOTOPLAY SERVICE) / PRINT SOURCE/RIGHTS: CHINA FILM ARCHIVE

Wu Yonggang made his directorial debut at Lianhua Film Company with The Goddess — or Shennü, which colloquially denotes a prostitute. Ruan Lingyu portrays a young mother forced into prostitution to support her son and provide him with an education. The sympathetic depiction of a streetwalker against the background of a predatory city makes this film surprisingly modern. Revealing the degradation of poverty and the exploitation of poor women, The Goddess criticises the feudal foundations of modern China. Ruan Lingyu brings great humanity to her role. Through emotionally powerful but very naturalistic acting for the time, she elevates the social outcast to the status of heroine. Shanghai was home to some 100 000 prostitutes by the 1930s and the subject regularly found its way onto the screen.

Production
still from New Women (Xin Nüxing)
1935 / Image courtesy: China Film Archive, Beijing

New Women (Xin Nüxing) 1935 All ages
3.00pm Sunday 11 March
 / Cinema A / Live electronic subtitling

35MM, 106 MINS, B. & W., SILENT (MUSICAL TRACK), CHINA, MANDARIN INTERTITLES / DIRECTOR: CAI CHUSHENG / SCRIPT: SUN SHIYI / CINEMATOGRAPHY: ZHOU DAMING / MUSIC: NIE ER / CAST: RUAN LINGYU, WANG NAIDONG, ZHENG JUNLI, WANG MOQIU, YIN XU / PRODUCTION COMPANY: LIANHUA FILM COMPANY (UNITED PHOTOPLAY SERVICE) / PRINT SOURCE/RIGHTS: CHINA FILM ARCHIVE

A masterpiece in the spirit of the May Fourth tradition that celebrated reformist and modernist ideas, New Women explores the liberation of women from feudal ties. Three women are contrasted: a factory worker who teaches evening classes at the workers’ union, an affluent housewife and a music teacher (Ruan Lingyu) who is also a composer and writer. The film was re-edited after its premiere to attenuate the negative depiction of the press. Ironically the media’s obsession with Ruan’s troubled love life was a critical element in her suicide at age 24. The female protagonist’s final outcry, ‘Please save me! I want to live!’, in the last sequence of New Women could carry an echo of a cry for help from the actress herself. The film was inspired by the life of actress and writer Ai Xia who took her own life in 1934. Ruan Lingyu committed suicide the following year on International Women’s Day (8 March), shortly after this film’s release, in circumstances resembling her character’s situation. She plays an educated woman struggling for financial and personal independence only to be harshly punished by society. The sharp contradiction between modern society and feudalism is powerfully expressed in the film through symbols as well as montage employing juxtaposition and flashbacks.