The Goddess (1934) is a black & white silent film made in Shanghai, China, under the original Chinese title Shennü — and it stars one of my favorite actresses of all-time: the incredible Ruan Lingyu. That alone should be enough to convince you to see the film, to own it, but I suspect that even should my word carry that much weight with you, you still want to know more. *wink*
The word shennü has two meanings; literally, it means “divine woman,” and figuratively, it’s a colloquial euphemism for street prostitute. But even if we didn’t know this, the opening of the restored film tells us this is a story of a prostitute — a prostitute and a mother.
Opening Of The Goddess
In a way it’s rather unfortunate that the film begins this way, the text used to tell the story rather than just trusting the images, trusting the artistry of Ruan… But the more modern restoration can hardly be blamed or seen as slighting Ruan’s performance; the original Chinese film used intertitles, seemingly having felt the need to spoon-feed an audience too:
The prostitute struggles in the whirlpool of life. In the streets of the night, she is a lowly prostitute. When she holds her child up, she is a saintly mother. Between these two lives, she has shown her formidable character.
I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s obvious when she waits on the dirty neon-lit street for a man, disappears into a building with him while we are left to watch the sunrise, then see our exhausted heroine head home, that our divine woman sells herself to men on the streets of Shanghai.
Don’t believe me? Watch and see:
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.
The Goddess and The Crime Boss
Now the crime boss is her pimp, expecting physical pleasures along with his cut of the cash. He and his cronies drop by her home whenever they wish. She tries to hide money from him, to better her son’s life, but the crime boss finds it — and she knows the price she’ll pay in the future if she tries again.
Desperate, she & her son escape in the middle of the night to a new city, only to end up with the same old problems — including the crime boss. He’s tracked her down, taken the boy, and waits for her return. To get her son back, she must go along with the crime 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 crime boss is suspicious and misses his money. He is violent and abusive but she is unwavering, suffering the abuse and the prostitution 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.
Ruan As The Goddess Adoring Her Son
She revels in his studies — and Ruan radiates just looking at the boy. When the school has a talent show and her son performs, Ruan glows with a happiness which transcends even 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, making 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?”
Scene From 1934's The Goddess
It is heartbreaking. Neither the audience nor the principal can remain unmoved by the depth of her love, her willingness to sacrifice for the sake of her son.
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 — as if she hasn’t been trying!) At the school, 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 where we see the filmmakers’ views on poverty, class struggle, and Shanghai society.
However, the school board members fear action by concerned & upset parents and so want the boy expelled. The principal responds that if they expel the boy, they will not have only failed the child but failed as educators in general — and he will not remain at the school if they do. But they do expel the boy and the principal leaves his job at the school.
Not knowing the strong stand the principal took, The Goddess feels betrayed yet again. In fight-or-flight mode, she readies to flee with her son yet again. But when she goes to get her hidden savings she discovers that the crime boss has already found her stash and taken it. The flight option removed, The Goddess now heads off to fight — the crime boss.
To tell you what happens next would be a disservice to you and the film. Enigmatically, I will say that in the battle between The Goddess and the crime boss, the victor is not victorious. She may have won the fight but she loses the war and pays the price — a steep price. For even though he is a low-life criminal, a man is still worth more than a woman. And a whore? Even less so.
Women, especially whorish women, must be punished (in films and in real life).
True, China didn’t need to adhere to the Hollywood Code but the operating feudal system morality in 1930’s China was akin to such thinking, so while the story dared to be told via film, in the end, our heroine must pay the price.
Or maybe the price is simply more of the film’s statement on the unfairness of poverty and class.
In any case, Ruan’s goddess pays the kind of price that leaves you crying — tears of sorrow, tears of rage.
The Goddess could be called, simplistically, just another Madonna-Whore film; but given that worldwide the schism still exists, who can argue against such such a timeless, even if vintage, exploration of it?
And Ruan Lingyu’s poignant performance is worth watching for its own sake.
You can watch & download the entire film for free at The Internet Archive as The Goddess is now in the public domain, and watch it on TCM, as I did — but do yourself a favor and buy a DVD; your sale will be support for the restoration and distribution of great old films. Ruan Ling-Yu: The Goddess of Shanghai, the actress’ biography, also contains a DVD of The Goddess.
Chinese Film Poster For The Goddess