While most fans of early film know about the major movie studios in
Hollywood, Germany, France and Italy, the films made in the Far East are
little known. Not surprisingly, there was a bustling film industry
in China in the early part of the 20th century too, with Shanghai along
having nearly 200 production houses at one time. All this came to
a halt when Japan invaded at the start of WW II, but before that time China
had a very vibrant film business.
One of the bigger stars in China in the early 1930's was a young lady
named Ruan Lingyu. Coming from a poor background, Ruan appeared in
her first film in 1927, The Normal Couple, at the age of 16. She
appeared in several smaller romance pictures, but in 1930 the actress hit
the big time staring in pictures like Small Toys, The Peach Girl, and The
Wild Flower. These films brought her money and fame, but also trouble.
Her husband with whom she had been estranged for several years publically
accused her of adultery, a criminal offense for a woman at that time.
The papers went wild with the scandal, and Ruan committed suicide in 1935.
Her funeral rivaled Valentino's with a reported 300,000 mourners turning
out to see her casket. Her life was to subject of a 1992 biopic The
Actress, staring Maggie Cheung (Police Story, Executioners)
playing the tragic Ruan.
In Shennü (The Goddess,) Ruan Lingyu plays an unnamed
prostitute. She sells herself on the streets every night to provide
for her son. Not only does she have to avoid the police while making
herself appealing to her customers, but she has been taken over by a gambler
who steals all of the money she makes. As the years pass her son
grows but he has no friends. Because of her profession and because
he doesn't have a father, the other children won't play with him and taunt
him with jeers of "bastard!" Wanting something better for her son,
the woman starts hiding some of her money. Behind a loose brick in
her apartment she manages to hide enough to send her son to school.
He excels at his studies and enjoys the environment, but the situation
soon gets worse. Things come to a head when a neighbor woman complains
to the school that an illegitimate child is being taught there and the
school considers expelling him to save their honor. At the same time
the gambler finds the hidden stash of money and gambles it all away.
This leads to the dramatic conclusion that is both tragic and believable.
This powerful film is an excellent example of Ruan Lingyu's acting ability.
A lesser actress could have turned this into a sappy melodrama, but Ruan
is very subtle in her performance. She projects the prostitute's
emotions through nuances and body language rather than by trying to state
things more overtly. You can feel the mother's love for her child
as she rocks him on her lap or by the way she greets him after school.
The movie isn't all depressing and down though, there are some amusing
and very cute parts, such as the school talent show were several of the
students perform in front of their parents, and the ending is very touching.
With invasions by Japan and social unrest, China was on the verge of
a civil war. This social drama used a prostitute to symbolize the
suffering that China was going through at the time. It also effectively
points out the social injustices that society perpetrates on its lowest
citizens by giving a human face to the misery, while not painting a hopeless
situation. This is a powerful movie that is both engrossing and touching.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival produced this DVD as a fund raising
item. They only produced what they thought they could sell at the
Festival, so the disc is extremely limited. I couldn't get an exact
number, but officials at the Festival said it was less than 500.
This disc is not available through regular on-line outlets, the only place
you can purchase it is through the Festival's web site here.
Make sure you tell them that you heard about the disc through DVDTalk.com.
This DVD has an unusual feature that I haven't seen on other DVDs: It
has the PAL version of the movie on one side and the NTSC version on the
other. The disc is not region coded, so it's easily played anywhere
in the world. I think this is a great idea, and hope more producers,
both foreign and domestic, copy this idea.
The two channel piano score, composed and played by Kevin Purrone, sounds
crisp and clean. There is excellent dynamic range with a full bodied
sound. There was no hiss or distortion and the quite sections of
the score are clear and easy to hear while the louder sections are forceful.
A great sounding soundtrack. (This soundtrack is also available on
CD from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, details available on their
web site: www.silentfilm.org.)
As where many DVDs offer a choice of audio tracks,
this one give the viewer a choice of video tracks. The movie is presented
with either Chinese or English intertitle cards. Aside from the cards,
the prints looked identical.
This movie was made in 1934 in Shanghai, and the
only existing copy in the world resides in the China Film Archive.
This 35mm print has suffered some damage over the years, as have many films
this old. There are some scratches and splices, and a little emulsion
degradation is apparent in a few areas, but the film also has areas where
the picture quality is absolutely beautiful. Overall this movie looks
very good. Most of the scenes have excellent contrast and while the
blacks are a little lighter than is optimum, there is very good detail.
I was very pleased with the quality of the print.
Dr. Richard J. Meyer narrates an incredibly informative 16-minute featurette
which is included as a bonus on the DVD. He discusses the history
of the film industry in mainland China in general and Shanghai in particular,
along with a giving a biographical sketch of star Ruan Ling-yu. Composer
and performer of the musical score, Kevin Purrone, gives an interesting
talk on how he wrote the music and illustrated the themes that he used
in his composition. Lastly, the sound engineer, Stan Sollars, illustrates
how he recorded the score that accompanies the movie. This was an
excellent bonus, being both informative and interesting.
The DVD case also contains an eight page insert that a short biography
of Ruan Ling-yu along with several stills of the actress.
I was very pleased that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival decided
to release such a rare film in conjunction with their ninth gathering.
This is a powerful movie, and one that is rarely shown. The print
looks very good for a film of this age, and the piano score sounded superb
and fits the movie well. Fans of silent film should try to purchase
a copy of this gem before it sells out, which it most assuredly will.
There is a very limited number still available. Visit their web site
here to order your
copy or this Highly Recommended DVD.