Gracie reviews the 1934 silent film The Goddess and gives us the scoop.
The Goddess is a black & white silent film made in 1934 in Shanghai, China, starring the incredible Ruan Lingyu.
The original Chinese title Shennü has a double meaning: literally, it means "divine woman," but it is also a colloquial euphemism for street prostitutes. But even if we didn't know this, the opening of the film tells us this is a story of a prostitute.
The original Chinese film starts with this: "The Goddess...struggling in life's turmoil...on the night streets, she is a lowly prostitute... When she picks up her child in her arms, she is a holy mother... In the midst of her two lives, she shows her great humanity." But this isn't really necessary. Even without subtitles or intertitles of any kind, it's pretty clear that she sells herself on the busy dirty, neon-lit streets of Shanghai. Being an old film, there's no nudity, but we can all follow the dotted lines of waiting for a man, disappearing with him, and then the sun rises as she heads home.
But still, we know nothing of this single woman & her son; not even their names.
Such a beginning had me fearing we'd never know enough about this unnamed prostitute to actually like her.
But we do.
Initially we like her due to sympathy of her circumstance; but eventually we come to like her for her determination and resilience ~ and the love of her son.
This movie's a literal Madonna-Whore thing.
The sex work is not glamorized. And it's pretty clear that such prostitution is forced by circumstances of poverty; she must do so to provide for herself and her infant son.
One night, in an attempt to avoid a police raid on that section of town, The Goddess ducks into the wrong doorway and finds herself face to face with the local crime boss. He offers her protection from the police, at a price, of course. It is an undesirable situation, but better than being busted and losing her son.
Now The Boss is her pimp, expecting physical pleasures along with his cut of the cash. He & his cronies drop by her home whenever they wish. She tries to hide money from him, to better her life, but he finds it and she knows the price she'll pay in the future if she tries again. Realizing this is unsafe for both herself and her son, she must find a way out.
She & her son move in the middle of the night to a new city ~ but end up with the same old problems, including The Boss. He's tracked her down, removed the boy, and waits for her return... To get him back, she must go along with The Boss. She's back in his clutches & control.
As the boy grows, we see him teased and ostracized, both for his mother's work and his status as an illegitimate child. Realizing her son's best future lies in an education, The Goddess squirrels away money for his tuition. This time she finds a better hiding place, but The Boss misses his money. He is violent and abusive, but she is unwavering.
She suffers both the prostitution and the abuse for the sake of her son.
It would seem a miserable life, but much like real life, there are little moments of brightness which pierce the gloom. For a mother, it is the joy of her child.
She revels in his studies, and Ruan radiates with simple looks at the boy. When the school has a talent show and her son performs, Ruan glows with a happiness which transcends her physical beauty. But such a bright light is shut off when the gossipy mothers in the audience begin whispering about her profession and pointing out her son to one another.
The gossip spreads, and eventually the school receives letters of complaint that a boy of such a mother should attend there. The principal, who seems impressed with the boy's diligence & behavior, investigates ~ including a trip to the boy's home.
Unhappy to learn that the mother is a prostitute, he tells her that under the circumstances he'll have to expel the child. The Goddess pleads her case, admitting her shame, she says, "Even though I am a degenerate woman, don't I have the right as a mother to raise him as a good boy?"
Seeing the depth of her love and her willingness to sacrifice for the sake of her son ~ and knowing that education is the key to this child's future ~ the principal says he will spare the boy. But he does encourage her to leave prostitution, of course; she tries to do so.
He returns to school where he argues the case before the school board. His argument, even seen on an old silent movie, is the stuff that will get a progressive up on her feet. It is both a passionate and intelligent speech, and I can only believe that we are seeing the filmmakers' views on poverty, class struggle, and Shanghai society.
However, the board, fearing other students will be pulled from the institution by concerned & upset parents, does not agree. The principal says that if they expel the boy, they have not only failed the child, but as educators in general; he will not remain at the school if they do.
But they do; both the boy and the principal leave the school.
Not knowing the strong stand the principal took, The Goddess feels betrayed yet again. Refusing to remain in such a vulnerable situation, she readies the boy & herself to flee yet again. She goes to remove her hidden money ~ but The Boss had already discovered & removed it.
Desperate, The Goddess is now in fight-or-flight mode; with flight removed, she now heads off to confront The Boss.
I don't want to ruin the rest, so I'll stop discussing the plot now. (Those who have seen the film, please join us in the discussion in the comments area.) I will say that in the confrontation between The Goddess & The Boss, the victor is not victorious. She may have won the fight but she loses the war and pays the price, for even though he is a low-life thug criminal, a man is still worth more than a woman ~ especially a whore.
Plus, it's China in the 30's.
True, there was no Hollywood Code, but the operating feudal system morality was akin to such thinking and so while the story dared to be told, in the end, our heroine must pay the price.
Personally, such suffering is hard to sit through in silence (I have been known to scream at such scenes ~ silent film is the medium, not my reaction). But much like Safe In Hell, such sacrifice makes for a memorable film.
Made all the more poignant by Ruan's beautiful acting.
The lowly-lows are there, but it is the contrast between them and the joyful, warm & exuberant scenes with her son, which give the movie its depth and breath ~ and take your breath away. It's her acting, along with such unexpected touches such as the impassioned intelligent arguments of the school's principal exposing the injustice and the silly scenes of children performing in the talent show, which make The Goddess more than the standard "fallen woman gets hers" cliche.
In The Goddess, the injustice ~ and Ruan's acting ~ is what shines and lasts more than any lingering morality tale.
You can hope for the film to appear again on TCM; or, like me, you can fall in love with Ruan Lingyu and get the film with Ruan Ling-Yu: The goddess of Shanghai, the actress' biography. (Best $30 you'll spend this week.)