Review of The Goddess (神女；China, 1934), A Lianhua Film Studio production (silent).
Director: WU Yonggang
Screenwriter: WU Yonggang
Cinematographer: HONG Weilie
Cast: RUAN Lingyu, ZHANG Zhizhi, LI Keng
Running time: 85 MIN.
Reviewed by UCI (Univ. of California, Irvine) Student Kenya Wilkinson
The Goddess (1934), directed by WU Yonggang
Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess tells the poignant story of a struggling, lower class woman in 1930s China who must submit to a life of prostitution and degradation in order to make a living and provide for her son, whom she loves dearly and continually strives to make a better life for. Lead actress Ruan Ling-Yu’s powerful performance of merging the heartrending fate of a woman who must sell her body for profit with the undying love a mother has for her child, along with Yonggang’s artistic cinematic tactics, effectively conveys the leftist message of the time, while also gripping viewers’ emotions. The director’s skillful use of prostitution as a way of highlighting China’s social problems of oppression, along with his simultaneous focus on the consequential victimization of the helpless, ultimately causes viewers to heavily ponder the dramatic issues presented in the film and gain a deeper insight as to the injustice of the time.
The Goddess delivers the leftist sentiments of social inequality and of the need for change within China through focusing on female suffering in 1930s society. One way in which this message is effectively conveyed in the film is through Ling-Yu’s beautiful mastery of the role. Her facial expressions and subtle gestures reveal the inner turmoil the character feels, and ultimately, it is her performance that brings true meaning to the film’s underlying argument. In one scene where Ling-Yu’s character comes home after having worked the streets, we see her quickly tend to her crying baby and, while she warmly cradles him in her arms, look up and stare off to the right in deep contemplation of the unfortunate reality she is being forced to live. She skillfully takes on a deep look of sadness and hopelessness, which tells viewers that, despite her loving heart and hardworking disposition, society has turned their backs and left her in a fallen state. In a later scene when she is forced to confront the street-gambler in her new apartment and is told that he has sold her son for two-hundred dollars, we see Ling-Yu’s facial expression masterfully deliver the message of injustice once again. The anguish and frustration with which her eyes speak magically light up the screen. Despite the lack of dialogue, her performance arouses viewers’ sentiments and conveys a dismal reality. Nodding her head in saddened submission, she looks up at the gambler while holding back tears and acknowledges his control over her. Her subtle movements and heartfelt facial expressions are what successfully relate the message of injustice to viewers.
As the film progresses and her efforts at creating a better life for her son continue to be thwarted by society however, her character grows more confident and her subtle expressions of sadness turn into heated moments of infuriation. Her eyes speak boldly and it is as if we can hear her heart pounding through her angered expression. The final scene in which she is seen storming the streets to get to the gambler’s den in order to re-claim her stolen hard-earned money drives the leftist message of social injustice home. Her distressed hair-style, heavy deep-breathing, and cold look of indignation serve to highlight the idea of female suffering and the overall oppression and mistreatment of the lower class. Ling-Yu’s masterfully crafted performance of sorrow, frustration, anger, and heartache powerfully communicates the filmmaker’s leftist message.
In addition to the outstanding performance by the film’s lead actress, director Wu Yonggang incorporates the cinematic artistry of close-ups, jarring camera angles, and abrupt transitions to convey an overall tone of social injustice. One reason viewers are able to feel the intensity behind Ling-Yu’s expressions and empathize with the message being delivered has a lot to do with the director’s use of close-ups. In one scene, for example, he zooms in the mother’s affectionate smile toward her son and allows viewers to see the humanity and love within the character before cutting to another close-up of the clock on the dresser, which informs the audience that night has fallen and that the mother’s time with her son must be cut short so that she can go and perform her job on the streets. Another important close-up used in the film is seen when Ling-Yu’s character is on the streets waiting for business to come her way. Yonggang de-emphasizes the act of prostitution in this particular scene by focusing in on the character’s feet and merely allowing viewers to see her walking away with a gentleman. Close-ups like these show the filmmaker’s efforts at trying to emphasize the domestic, maternal side of the character and marginalize her street life and acts of prostitution.
Another way in which Yonggang foregrounds the moral authority of the woman and tries to create a boundary between the interior and exterior worlds is by frequently cutting between shots of home life and nighttime cityscapes. He is conveying the message that those lives are not intertwined and that there is a disconnect between the outside world and the life she leads with her child at home—that she has been forced to submit to prostitution to support herself and her child. The message of the fallen state of society, however, is best depicted by the disturbing shot of Ling-Yu’s character and her baby on the floor between the grimy gambler’s legs. This shot is not only cinematically powerful, but it clearly communicates the filmmaker’s leftist message. The woman is on the floor between the man’s legs looking up at him in utter submission, which represents the powerlessness and suffering of the lower class amidst society. The director is effectively saying that while people like this character are on the bottom of society, it is truly society that needs to be reformed—not the victims of injustice.
Ultimately, despite the lack of dialogue and color, Wu Yonggang skillfully crafts a film that leaves a lasting impact on viewers. Between Ling-Yu’s talented performance and Yonggang’s cinematic artistry, The Goddess is a film which beautifully depicts the unfortunate social situation of 1930s China and leaves viewers with tears in their eyes.