When it comes to Chinese silent films, it is a rare combination with modern filmgoers as some tend to be discouraged by the lack of sound or the fear of being lost-in-translation. However, an exception should be made for the directorial debut of Chinese director Wu Yonggang, which was one of the most renowned films of China’s Golden Age of cinema.
The Goddess stars China’s ‘Greta Garbo’, Ruan Lingyu, who portrays ‘The Goddess’, a woman working as a prostitute to support herself and her baby son. As she stumbles into the room of a notorious gambler known as ‘The Boss’ (Zhang Zhizhi) during a vice raid, he forcibly becomes her pimp and gambles away her money. As the years go on, the woman yearns for a better life for her son, but social norms and the influence of ‘The Boss’ threatens their future.
The story revolves around a notably unnamed woman, whose lack of identity reflects the troubles of women throughout history. Inferior to their male counterparts, they are used when convenient and subsequently rejected when they need support, the parallels between the film and history itself make the Goddess’s struggles easier to empathise with her both as a person and as a single mother.
Aside from the comparisons to Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (single mother fights for her son’s future, who ends up being taken advantage of by a man), the tragic story of the woman’s struggles is universally relatable; so much so, that the film doesn’t need many dialogue inter titles. Instead, Zou Ye’s new score to accompany the remastered version of The Goddess guides it through the heroine’s highs and lows and it stirs the emotions within the story.
From a patriarchal society to local women who sees the ‘Goddess’ as a prostitute rather than a mother, traditional social conformities take their toll on her, portrayed so beautifully by Lingyu. Her ability to convey her emotions so naturally makes the Goddess’s turmoil all the more tender, heart-wrenching and tragic, especially as Lingyu herself committed suicide at the age of 24 in 1935, due to persistent gossip.
Pure in its narrative and poignant in its simplicity, The Goddess is more than an achievement in Chinese silent film. It is a work of art.
Director: Yonggang Wu
Writer: Yonggang Wu (script director)
Stars: Lingyu Ruan, Tian Jian, Zhizhi Zhang
Runtime: 85 mins