The Goddess (Shen nu)

The Goddess

In the midst of her two lives, she shows her great humanity.

Quick; name the most popular actress of the silent film era. Only thing: she can’t be American, or otherwise of the English language. Not as easy with that little caveat; unless you’re Chinese, and then a single name would’ve undoubtedly come across your lips: Ruan Ling-yu. To anyone going through the 1001 quest, that name should already ring a bell; she is the focus of Stanley Kwan’s 1992 film The Actress, or Center Stage, which is a biopic of her life, and made a great case for her name as the most well-regarded actress of the silent era, in the world. Evidently the editors of the list agreed, and included one of her films in the newest edition, and they ended up picking The Goddess, a film that is often held as the pinnacle of Chinese silent cinema. I don’t know if this was really the best that Chinese silent films could’ve possibly had to offer, but I was still pretty pleased with this one.

The title is a play on words; in Chinese, the characters used for the word “goddess” are also a derogatory slang for “prostitute”, which is the role Ling-yu plays in the film. She isn’t by choice; she has a young son, and she has no other means to support him. Until one day, when, on the run from the police, she falls into the hands of a nasty gambler, who after getting the police off her tail pretty much claims her as his own property as a result. This feeds into numerous conflicts she must try and overcome throughout the film, and ultimately leads her to the only conclusion she can have. I wish that didn’t sound as preposterously generic as it does, but the film is so short and so light on plot that to continue talking about it would be to tell the whole story, which wouldn’t really be prudent, since the whole point of reviews like this is to get you to either see or not see the film. Still, the story was good, though at a certain point it did seem like they were just chucking obstacle after obstacle at Ling-yu’s character trying to see when, or if, she’ll break. I also readily acknowledge that the film wouldn’t have been half of what it was without the amazing piano accompaniment of the print I watched. I seriously hope this is the standard music that the film is heard and released with, because it was nothing short of engrossing. It reminded me a lot of the stoic, calm piano score of Spirited Away, and indeed it does evoke similar emotions in the audience.

I wasn’t too sure I couldn’t have gone the rest of my life without seeing this one, but after seeing The Actress and wondering why such a huge silent era star, albeit a foreign one, wasn’t represented in some way in the Book, I won’t argue too much against its inclusion. This may very well turn out to be the one Ruan Ling-yu film you should see, if ever you were to see a Ruan Ling-yu film; I don’t know, as this is the only complete film of hers I’ve seen. Still, it was nice to see the real actress, who was very good for a silent actress, do her thing, and it was a mild way to pass an hour and a quarter. The filmmaking itself wasn’t bad either, so there’s an added bonus.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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