The Goddess (1934)

“The Goddess delivers the leftist sentiments of social inequality and of the need for change within China through focusing on female suffering in 1930s society.”

‘The Goddess’, directed by Wu Yonggang in 1934, is a silent Chinese film telling the story of a sex worker who is abused by her pimp and struggles to care for her child. The unnamed escort, played by Ruan Lingyu, is shown over the course of around seven years. At first she works to support her baby, then she stumbles into a malevolent gambler called Zhang, played by Zhang Zhizhi. Zhang becomes possessive and violent, eventually forcing the woman to live with him. She secretly conceals her money and eventually pays for her child to enter school, but her occupation causes problems with the school authorities, despite a defence by the liberal principal, and the child is expelled. It’s a dark, noirish movie with little in the way of relief from the grim and doom-laden plot. What struck me was how marginalised the woman is, even denied a character name and most of the dialogue (through intertitles). What balances this is the fact that this adds to the sense of her plight, and the camera focuses unrelentingly on her. The choice of actress for the role is also important. Ruan Lingyu was a major movie star in China until her suicide the year after this film was produced, so this film pivots on her recognisability and on the audience’s association with her fragile star persona. It’s a surprisingly direct and, at times, violent movie. The death of Zhang in particular is bloody and visceral, the silent nature of the movie bringing all the emotion and melodrama to the fore. It’s also, appropriately for the time and place it was made, threaded with left-wing political subtexts. It’s not hard to see the gamblers as representing Western excess in contrast with the austerity of the escort and the social compassion of the principal.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s packed with tragedy and a constant sense of melancholy. I’d watch in an unusual double bill with Lars von Trier’s ‘Dancer in the Dark’ for the similar narrative arc and grim ending.

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