by Chuck Williamson
Next month, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will kick off their fourteenth annual celebration of domestic and international cinema from the silent era. For those outside the silent cinema loop, the SFSFF is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving a long-neglected but vital part of our cinema history through archival screenings, educational panels, and promotional work—a true gift for silent cinema scholars and obsessives. In anticipation of this year’s festival — and also because I’m still bitter about not being able to go myself — I’ve decided to have a one-man movie marathon in my living room, going through some of the silent releases that would not be available without the SFSFF’s efforts.
The Goddess (Yonggang Wu, 1934) is one of those films. Since its initial SFSFF screening, The Goddess has given western viewers a rare glimpse into the burgeoning 1930s Chinese film industry, while also providing a perfect introduction to the filmography of screen legend Ruan Ling-yu. Throughout the twenties and thirties, Ruan earned international acclaim as China’s leading cinema icon, turning in a succession of natural, nuanced performances that ended with her tragic 1935 suicide. In The Goddess, her most famous role, Ruan plays an unnamed woman living in the decayed, desiccated Shanghai slums who is forced to moonlight as a prostitute in order to support her son. Despite its few flirtations with melodrama, the film remains a potent mix of the personal and the political, visualizing the consequences of the period’s troubled economic conditions through its pained narrative of maternal love and self-sacrifice. But The Goddess is perhaps best appreciated as an intimate and heartbreaking human drama enhanced by Ruan Ling-yu’s haunting presence—a subtle, affecting performance that externalizes the shame and sadness of her character without the use of language. If any film could serve as the perfect gateway into Chinese silent cinema, this would be it.
(Note: The DVD edition of this was produced by the SFSFF as a limited edition fund-raising item and can only be purchased through their website.)