Bright Lights Film Journal

The Goddess in Her Element: Ruan Lingyu in Shanghai

“This is an actress who shows excitement down to the curl of her fingers, and whose face reveals every kind of mercurial change.”

I don’t think I really understood the potential of silent acting before seeing Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess (1934). Having watched Maggie Cheung’s slow, stately version of Ruan in Centre Stage (1992), I was unprepared for this fantastically mobile figure, with darting eyes and freely moving arms. This is an actress who shows excitement down to the curl of her fingers, and whose face reveals every kind of mercurial change. Sometimes her eyes narrow with desire, but in the next moment, she is an image of despair, as exhaustion threatens to overtake the features, already worn and thinning with ill health. Similarly, I had no idea of what early Asian cinema could be like, prior to discovering the films of Ruan’s collaborator, director Bu Wancang. These are silent films of an astonishing intimacy and range, with complex emotional schemes and multiple narratives that draw us in, one layer at a time. Watching Bu’s Love and Duty (1931) is almost like entering a spacious, multi-level house: we are invited to explore the different parts and recesses of the structure, before realizing that they form a whole. With its graceful stacking of moods, genres and acting styles, this movie has become an extraordinary artifact. It contains multiple narratives of different dimensions — all unaccountably stitched together, although we can only begin to work out how.

From what I’ve been able to see (many of the pictures are lost, while Love and Duty was only rediscovered in the ’90s), Ruan has a reputation that is fully deserved — and is, if anything, still underrated. As a prostitute and devoted mother in Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess, she’s more fluid than most actresses today. Unlike the stars of European silents, Chinese performers tend to act as if they’re in talkies — thus the films are full of murmuring and twitchy movements. Ruan’s hands are always busy with some little motion — touching up her appearance, unfastening ties and clasps — and these moves are performed with such delicacy that, even without sound, we get a close textural involvement. We fancy we can hear the rustle of the fabric, just as a puckering noise seems to occur when she covers her baby’s face with kisses. Her walk is an elegantly suspended, slightly stalking motion; however, this “careless” sway reveals a great deal of unease. Within her feminine code of expression, Ruan is able to convey anxiety and even forgetfulness in her movements. For most of the film, this woman is simply tired, and when not brightening at the thought of her child, she turns to oblivion.

This drama is enclosed within the spectacle of a great modernist city: a Shanghai made up of shadows and geometric patterns of light, like fluorescent match-sticks. It’s a linear, futuristic world which anticipates the cities of Sternberg (particularly Macao, 1952) in its creation of a magical environment out of threadbare sets and fragments. Like Sternberg, Wu uses shadows moving across limited space to suggest exterior shots; buildings have waves of light rippling over them. The skyline is invitingly laid out but somewhat abstract and inhuman, with its neon graphs and darting points of light. Yet there is one image which does reflect the restlessness of the population, and the frantic pace of modernism. In several scenes, we see the lighted tops of towers, spinning through revolutions — like little planets whipping through cycles, while the people below are dizzied and often famished, barely surviving the burn-out of one season. Shanghai is an ungraspable place: it’s constantly being imagined, but indifferent to the actual scenes played within it. When Ruan walks defiantly through the streets, the camera shows her moving through a black frame, while glassy surfaces and reflections appear on either side. She never comes close to affecting the beautiful impervious city: a constellation of lights which recede from touch.

While this dazzling outer shell is projected, daily life tends to consist of endless chores, and putting up with the strain of hot lights and rooms. Gradually, we see the way this woman’s interior life is pieced together, with one or two good dresses hung up on hooks, and a little mirror with which to achieve her effects. Ruan’s character is still young and can present a cool, attractive surface to clients. In her slim cheongsam, she has a persuasively sexual walk, and uses her long arms to extend a cigarette — a little languorously, if only due to fatigue. However, the moment a plan fails, her entire body goes slack — when a potential client walks away, the pose is dropped and she looks after him wearily. But when it comes to defending her son from an attack, she fights with real anger and recrimination. It’s this look of womanly scorn which is so characteristic of Ruan — she lets disdain turn her face ugly, and is not afraid to make her eyes shifty and small in calculation. (Imagine the mask-like Zhang Ziyi taking such a risk — among Chinese actresses today, only Michelle Yeoh allows her face to become complex and knotted with pain.) With Ruan, a sneer indicates a deep vein of contempt. Even when slouching attractively on the street, she can’t help tapping her foot in a coarse, impatient manner. The “cheap” gesture exposes her nihilism — the fact that she has nothing to gain by pleasing — and shows that a bitter resolution has been formed.

There are many classical references in this film: the recurring image of a kneeling woman, as well as the focus on poetry and fine art often seen in Chinese silents. A cycle of tragic songs flows through The Goddess; however, this never seems maudlin thanks to the animation of the performers. The film contains several joyful and seemingly demented child actors, who are obsessively single-minded. These toy-like kids can be charmingly broody; we laugh at their solemnness in getting moves just right, while blowing wacky kisses to the audience.

In two films by Bu Wancang, social commentary is attached to various levels of pantomime — comedy helps to destabilize the cliché. The drama A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931, right) has a romantic lead named Valentine who is transformed into a Robin Hood-style avenger; we’re invited to be amused by this episode without entirely dismissing it. In Bu’s films, serious acting is combined with eccentric, wayward effects — for instance, while an earnest performer emotes in the foreground, good-humored extras are cajoled into the frame. One unexpected touch is the presence of a character named Fatty (Liu Jiqun), who entertains the rebels with his drag act. Liu has an uncontained style of acting bizarrely suited to silents — he does multiple throat-clearings for “realism” and has a fiercely working mouth that jabbers long after his close-up has been taken.

Liu also makes an appearance in the best Chinese silent I’ve seen: Love and Duty. The film begins with what appears to be a heroic male portrait, with a young man working his way towards a career and maturity. A seemingly light, trivial woman (Ruan) happens to cross his path and catch his eye. We believe she will be a mere catalyst for his journey — but as it turns out, the film is more interested in pursuing this girl, and turning into a domestic melodrama. In the end, it’s her destiny that defines the movie, and the extent to which it has been shaped by the men she encounters. This constant changing of dimensions and priorities is the film’s key feature, and it’s reflected in the fact that Ruan plays multiple roles — first a young wife punished for adultery, then the cast-out mother who becomes a seamstress, and finally, her own daughter who returns to the fold. As in A Spray of Plum Blossoms, there’s the sense of being welcomed as a guest into a house of fiction, where despite moments of tragedy, our enjoyment is assured at all times. Our entry into the “foyer” — complete with scrolls and illustrations — is a gentle comedy of manners. This is the pastoral section of the film — like the first act in a ballet, where people gambol around, and there’s a slightly overplayed version of romantic silliness. There’s an element of Ophuls in the way these young people act out emotion — for instance, Ruan’s lover (Jin Yan) imagines himself as a Fairbanks-style hero whose honor is under threat. It’s reminiscent of the scene in La Ronde (1950) where Daniel Gélin excitedly tells himself he’s the lover of a married woman, and thus works himself up to inhabiting his own scenario.

Nevertheless, at some point, the lovers must pay; events conspire to haunt and drive out the protagonist. All this is devastating — yet comic inserts involving Fatty-like characters are staged to regulate the mood. Finally, after a period of struggle, a catharsis occurs in which the “villain” is allowed a moment of redemption, and all pay homage to the film’s icon. The film ends with the three children bowing towards the maternal image (“Mother! Mother! Mother!”), saluting it in a manner which echoes Ruan’s multiple roles. The chiming of the three cries subtly hints at Chinese opera — again there’s the brilliant implication of voice without sound. However, just as we’re immersed in this scene, the film tactfully suggests that, as guests, we can now step back out into the hallway. The final image is a plaque which invites us to visit again. It’s a way of gracefully seeing us to the door; the film acknowledges the impact and strangeness of what we have been through, yet offers the Shakespearean hope that we have been diverted and entertained.

Many elements conspire to unsettle the pathos of this film. As the young girl, Ruan has a rascally look of delight; she resembles Kay Francis, whose open smile of sexual greed would probably be considered too much by today’s standards. The intertitles are knowing but never sermonizing, and deadpan even in tragedy. Some of the older characters are played by twiggy, fine-boned young men who look like students — I initially thought they were women in disguise. The movie also seems to perceive women as the prime players of emotion, and as somehow easier to differentiate than men. Since men tend to play underlings, figureheads, or various “straight” figures, they are more likely to be seen as “types”, and are less expressive than women.

The exception is the edgy and theatrical Liu Jiqun; each time he appears, it’s as if he’s been waiting to come on stage, nose twitching, like the predator in Peter and the Wolf. This was emphasized at the screening I attended, by a marvelous accompaniment from Australian musician Wang Zheng-ting. This is easily the best live film score I’ve heard — when a character is being sly, Wang uses a quick little piping to suggest impishness. When someone blinks, a brush is smoothed over percussion to create the sense of a radiating pool. However, Wang’s talents are also revealed when he doesn’t play — in his strategic use of silence. It’s almost as if he guides us into a scene, then releases us shortly before the climax, so that we barely notice silence has “come on” — we register it as a mood change more than an absence of sound. This might be a model for film accompaniment — Wang has the ability to build space into a film, carving shapes perfectly suited to the actors’ movements.

The variations in Wang’s playing drew my attention to the flexibility of the actors, with their speed changes and brisk rendering of scenes. Ruan has the bonelessness we associate with Lillian Gish, but she combines it with a willingness to play the small, tacky gesture. Bu’s pictures contain an immense range of acting — from Ruan, to the androgynous young men, to the active and vivid children who require constant stimulation. This reflects the many layers of emotional response to the films. We react to the staginess and improbability of a tragedy as much as the events themselves, and the film manages to acknowledge all our impulses. Pantomime elevates the sense of emotion peeking through disguise — that feeling of veiled identities being exposed, and tears restrained behind curtains. In Love and Duty, we’re carried away by torrents of melodrama, but just as compelling are the gags, the semi-comic races against time, and after everything, the offering of pleasantries to the viewer. The film presents a world of vanished complexity, a directorial sophistication which is less about style than being intelligent and reactive to every change.

Bu’s pictures deal with the life of Shanghai — a city that was once a wonder and is still too big to imagine, with its cosmopolitan high life and amazingly fertile undergrowth. These films show femmes fatales and tomboys in English riding clothes alongside household gods and shrines. Characters step out of flower-shaped bowers and live in a mixture of Art Deco and chinoiserie. However, this is a city too busy to be conscious of its own eclecticism. “Multiculturalism” is beside the point when a place is this casually modern, and new archetypes are being forged every day. The city is spinning so fast there’s no time to dwell on the ingenuity of its own inventions. Those are for us to unravel now.