On September 29, 2021, theaters across the country will celebrate the first ever National Silent Movie Day with virtual and in-person screenings for classic movie geeks like myself. At the National Museum of Asian Art, our contribution will be a one-time virtual screening of perhaps the most famous Chinese silent film of all, The Goddess (1934). The screening will feature a musical score specially created by Donald Sosin, who is celebrating fifty years of accompanying silent movies.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai was a cosmopolitan metropolis with an international population and a glamorous movie industry to match. One of the industry’s biggest stars was Ruan Lingyu, who plays the lead role in The Goddess. Raised by a single mother who worked as a housemaid, Ruan began acting as a teenager, and some have speculated that she drew on her difficult upbringing to bring depth to her mesmerizing performance in the film as a sex worker who sacrifices everything for her son. Directed by Wu Yonggang, The Goddess is a prime example of the increasingly sophisticated fare being produced at the time. It is at once a tear-jerking melodrama and a “problem picture” about the plight of women in Chinese society. At the time, it was estimated that thirteen percent of the female population of Shanghai were sex workers, partly because it was one of the few jobs that paid women close to a livable wage. The film’s sophisticated take on social issues is matched by its visuals, which include beautiful shots of nighttime Shanghai and, of course, dazzling close-ups of Ruan’s radiant and expressive face. Her beguiling screen presence in The Goddess and other films led her to be called the Greta Garbo of China, but it was her off-screen life as much as her onscreen impact that continues to fascinate cinephiles over eighty years after her death.
Then as now, the entertainment press relied on salacious celebrity gossip to sell papers. At the height of her stardom, Ruan found herself caught in a love triangle with Zhang Damin, her childhood sweetheart (and the son of a family whose house her mother used to clean), and Tang Jishan, a wealthy business tycoon. Zhang eventually filed lawsuits accusing Ruan of theft and adultery, and Tang struck up an affair with another actress while he was living with Ruan. All of this, of course, played out in the headlines, and on March 8, 1935, Ruan died of an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving behind a note that contained the now famous phrase, “Gossip is a fearful thing.” This led to the widespread belief that the press hounded her to death, but other versions of the note that came to light in the early 2000s seem to put the blame on Zhang. An estimated 100,000 people attended Ruan’s funeral procession through the streets of Shanghai, which even made the pages of the New York Times.
Ruan’s legend was rekindled by Stanley Kwan’s award-winning 1991 film Center Stage, in which Maggie Cheung plays Ruan, and later by a long-running Chinese television series. While her tragic death at the age of only twenty-four certainly contributed to her legendary status, Ruan’s talent is undeniable. She had the rare ability to project a wide depth and range of emotion purely through subtle changes in facial expressions. As her fellow actress and sometimes costar Li Lili put it, “I think the distinguishing feature of her performances was their believability, their extreme meticulousness. She. . .realized that film acting wasn’t about ingratiating yourself with audiences or mechanically going through the range of emotions – but rather, penetrating the heart of a role and expressing that role’s emotional content.” Nowhere are these qualities more apparent than in this masterpiece of silent cinema.