After a couple years of putting up with Hollywood giving its take on China, finally China answers back.
China’s film scene was born at a tough time. The nation was embroiled in a Civil War in the late 1920s, then went to war with Japan in 1937. In between, money was tight, and people wanted an escape; but the films sent over from Hollywood were either culturally baffling or insensitive. But that lack of cash made it all the more challenging for the few local studios which kicked off during the period. Still, they made a go of it, striving to produce films with stories more germane to the average Chinese citizen than 42nd Street or the like.
One of the big three studios fortunately had two bright talents under its banner – filmmaker Wu Yonggang, and actress Ruan Lingyu. Ruan was one of China’s biggest stars in 1934, with a long string of hits to her name; several of them dramas featuring Ruan as a poor but hopeful heroine. She was increasingly drawn to films showcasing social issues and produced by left-leaning directors. As for Wu Yonggang, The Goddess was his film debut, and proved an auspicious beginning to a 40+ year career.
The Goddess isn’t necessarily a film that’s going to grab everyone. It’s a silent film about a down-on-her-luck prostitute, and the bad guy is almost a caricature with no clear motivation except to be a jerk. On the other hand, it has Ruan LIngyu, it has an adorable kid, and it actually manages to deliver a social message without being preachy.
The Chinese title of the film is actually a play on words: Shénnǚ does translate to “The Goddess”, but it can also refer to a prostitute. Ruan plays such a nameless prostitute; a single mother driven into The Life to support her son. At the top of the film, she’s got a solid routine in place: leaving her baby with a neighbor and heading out to the streets all night, then coming home to dote on him. It’s tiring, but she is utterly in love with her little boy. One night the police decide to sweep the streets, and a local low-life named Zhang offers her a place to hide in his flat. …In exchange for a taste of her services, of course. Our unnamed heroine has to agree, leaving in the morning; but Zhang sees an opportunity and secretly follows her home, bullying her into making him her pimp. When he threatens to take away her son, she gives in.
Five years later, “The Goddess” is living in a flat owned by Zhang, and her son is a sweet, curious little boy. The neighbors gossip about her and keep their kids away from her son, but “The Goddess” perseveres. Zhang is in the habit of coming by unannounced and helping himself to the money in her desk drawer, so she’s started hiding some in a hole in the wall hidden by a loose brick; she discovers one day that she’s saved up enough to get her son into a nearby private school, and enrolls him right away, carefully obscuring her profession from the principal. The boy takes to school like a fish to water, eagerly reading all of his lessons out loud to his mother at night and even playing “school” with her in the evenings. When he gets a solo in the school talent show, she shows up sitting in the front row and bursting with pride.
Unfortunately one of the busybody neighbors is also in the audience, and spreads the word about “The Goddess”’s profession. The principal receives floods of angry letters complaining about the immoral situation. Meanwhile, Zhang has come by the flat for a hit of cash, and starts idly playing with a loose brick in the wall…
That all sounds like serious melodrama, and the ending is even more so. But except for a couple of High Passion moments, the acting is remarkably subtle. The chemistry between “The Goddess” and her son is especially endearing; the scene where the boy is “playing school” with his mother drew a genuine “awwwww!” from me.
The film also takes a sympathetic look at the whole issue of prostitution, casting it as a last-resort measure for women who truly have been shut out of any other choice. Society is to blame, the film argues – not the women, and certainly not any of their children. But there’s no big dramatic turning-point where everyone is convinced that the Prostitute Has A Heart Of Gold – instead, the principal follows up on the letters with a home visit, where he sees that even though the woman has a shady job the little boy seems safe and happy, and actually goes back to the school board to try advocating on her behalf. And even here – he doesn’t sway everyone with any kind of ‘Have Mercy On Her!” speech. He does speak on her defense, however.
The Goddess was a small-scale, simple film that I found strangely affecting.