Made at a time of great changes in the Chinese film industry, political turbulence in China, and personal turmoil in the life of its star, The Goddess (Shennü) was dismissed as decadent by Chinese scholars during the Cultural Revolution. But these circumstances only served to fuel the film’s mystique over the years, and The Goddess has been restored to a place of great importance in China’s film history.
As the goddess of the title (a euphemism for prostitute), actress Ruan Lingyu added to her already legendary stature as the tragic heroine of Chinese movies. She would make only two more films. In 1935, despondent over a series of personal troubles that were made public in a humiliating feeding frenzy by the Shanghai press, Ruan died of an overdose of barbiturates.
The Goddess was the first film by leftist writer-director Wu Yonggang, who continued to make films in China off and on until 1981, surviving the Communist takeover and the Cultural Revolution.
In 1934, when The Goddess was produced in Shanghai, China was a fractured nation, suffering the effects of a prolonged civil war after decades of infiltration by various European nations and Japan. There was no national government, although the Soviet Union supported Jiăng Jièshi (Chiang Kei-shek) and his army of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party). The Kuomintang largely ignored Japan, which invaded Manchuria in 1931 and bombed Shanghai in 1932. Despite these travails, there was a mania for films in China’s urban centers, especially Shanghai, the city that saw China’s first film screening in 1896.
The first dramatic film made in China was the 1905 Tingchung Mountain, based on an episode of the Beijing Opera production The Three Kingdoms, from a 14th century novel. In 1909, American entrepreneur Benjamin Polaski opened the Asia Film Company in Hong Kong. In 1912, it moved to Shanghai, where it produced the first Chinese fictional film not based on a theatrical work: The Difficult Couple, about feudal marriage customs of Guangzhou.
The often fly-by-night nature of foreign film presenters prompted Shanghai city officials to require exhibition permits by 1911. New rules required separate seating for men and women and forbade presentation of “immoral films.”
The first film company owned and operated entirely by Chinese was Huei Hsi, formed in 1916. Its first production was an exploitation film presented as a morality play about opium addiction: Wronged Ghosts in an Opium Den.
The Commercial Press of Shanghai opened its own newsreel division in 1919. Beijing Opera actor Mei Lan-fang directed and starred in their first dramatic films, produced in 1920: Spring Fragrance Disturbs the Study and Heavenly Maiden Strews Blossoms. Commercial Press built a glass-enclosed studio for these films on the fourth floor of its Shanghai building.
Western, especially American, films dominated the Chinese market in the 1920s. While it’s unlikely that any of the American “Yellow Peril” films made their way to theater in China, these racist diatribes inspired New York resident Hon Song Lum to start the Great Wall Film Company in Manhattan’s Chinatown district in 1921. His goal was to produce films both in China and America to feature positive Chinese characters. Hon’s first film made in Shanghai, Fool (1922), featured the 300-pound actor Zeuling Loo imitating American comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Movies became a get-rich-quick scheme during the 1921 economic crisis. One hundred and forty new film companies registered with the Shanghai authorities. By March 1922, only 12 remained.
With support from the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party, the Kuomintang established a government in the southern province of Guangdong in 1917. Li Mingwei, who had worked for the Asia Film Company in 1913, became the Kuomintang’s documentarian and propagandist, filming the 1924 Congress in Guangzhou. After capturing Shanghai in 1927, Kuomintang leader Jiăng Jièshi outlawed the Communist Party and slaughtered 12,000 suspected communists during a three-week period, some 5,000 in Shanghai alone.
Movies continued to be made in Shanghai, although the subject matter of films made from 1928 through 1932, such as the 18 installments of The Burning of Red Lotus, relied on heroic tales, often derived from newspaper comic strips.
Western-produced sound films had found their way to China’s port cities as early as 1929. Although few theaters could afford the equipment required for these pictures, there was great interest among the film companies to produce the first Chinese talkie. The manager of Pathé-Gramophone’s Shanghai division was also an investor in the Mingxing Film Company, sparking a partnership that led to the first Chinese sound film, Singsong Girl Red Peony, in 1930. Although there are several distinct dialects throughout China, Mandarin was the dialect chosen to be spoken for sound films, as it was the form spoken in Beijing and considered the official national language by the Kuomintang. Due to the lack of sound-equipped theaters and resistance from some regions that didn’t speak Mandarin, silent films continued to be made in China as late as 1936.
A set of ill-defined regulations regarding film content were established by the Kuomintang in 1930. Unlike the American Production Code, these regulations were vague and open to interpretation by the officials who granted exhibition licenses. This ambiguity intended to allow officials interpretive freedom also allowed leftist filmmakers to subtly present ideas and stories that might have been stopped by a more precise set of rules.
Shanghai native Ruan Lingyu made her first film, The Nominal Couple, in 1927 at the age of 16. That same year she married Zhang Damin, youngest son of the family that Ruan’s mother worked for as a maid. The marriage was opposed by Zhang’s family and the couple separated but never divorced. Ruan labored in formula romances until 1930, when she signed on with the Lianhua Film Company. Her face became well-known throughout Shanghai, appearing on the covers of movie magazines and on the big screen in films like Wayside Flower (1930) and The Peach Girl (1931).
Ruan became a target for gossip columns in 1934, when her estranged husband charged her with adultery. For a woman, that was a criminal offense. In the years since she had separated from Zhang, she had taken merchant Tang Jishan as her lover. When she was summoned to appear in court, headlines erupted. The negative attention was more than Ruan could bear, and she committed suicide in March of 1935. Her funeral drew 300,000 mourners. Her tomb was demolished during the Cultural Revolution, but in 1996 a new monument was dedicated to her in Shanghai’s FuShou Memorial Garden. Maggie Cheung portrayed Ruan in Stanley Kwan’s biographical film Centre Stage (1991).
Wu Yonggang worked as an art director and costume designer for various studios before directing his first film, The Goddess. A year previously, he was involved with the leftist China Film Cultural Society, an association of film professionals that sought to use movies for Marxist education. The Kuomintang forcefully disbanded the group in early 1934.
Wu’s leftist credentials were an asset following the Communist Revolution in 1949, but in 1957 he challenged the Communist Party’s restrictions on filmmakers and was prevented from making any more films until 1962. During the oppressive Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976, Wu was again in disfavor. However, his penultimate film, Night Rain at Bashan, a commentary on the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, won the 1981 Golden Rooster (the Chinese Oscar) for best picture. He died in December of 1982.
Presented at SFSFF 2004 with live music by Kevin Purrone