Shen nu – The Goddess

China, 1934

Directed by Wu Yonggang

With Ruan Lingyu (The Goddess), Zhang Zhizhi (the Boss), Li Keng (the Child), Li Junpan (the Principal)

The first title card explains the title, right away putting on a high moral ground the lead character, defined as an embodiment of strong virtuous feelings and acute social problems, a mythic figure amid the harsh and hectic modernity, an ideal incarnate, and so much so that she is known as a concept and not by a name – never would the film calls her by any name, or allude to any background; but the title also simply refers to the way folks in Shanghai dubbed the prostitutes (shen nu), who used in the 1930s to throng the streets of the cosmopolitan city. The woman is a streetwalker who has a son; by night she sells her body so as to be able to feed and care for her toddler by the day, a divided life she leads with the strongest ethics and a real fortitude. She is a goddess for she is both a prostitute and a mother, striving to survive and to bring up a kid despite all odds.

Her narrative is divided in two, according to her son’s age. There is the time when he is a toddler: scenes describe the routines of her life till a police raid alters dramatically the picture. She is forced to ask for help a thug, a fat and conceited fellow running gambling dens who has fallen in love with her, a thoroughly unrequited feeling. The Boss takes the woman under his wing and grabs her profits. She increasingly resents the situation, and one day runs away. But she has not left Shanghai: so the Boss eventually finds her and threatens her with selling her son if she does not stand by him. Her life remains a prison.

Struggling to give her child a future, and her life pride: Li Junpan (left), Li Keng (center), and Ruan Lingyu

Years go by, and the son is now a child. It is time for him to go to school, and the woman has managed to stash away enough money for enrolling him in a private school, despite the financial needs and pressure of the Boss. The child does like school, and proves a good student. But some of the woman’s neighbors do not like her and cannot accept a streetwalker can thrive among them, and her son too. So they ask the school’s principal to expel what they call a bastard. The old man investigates the case and is so shaken by the impassioned plea of the woman to give her boy a chance that he refuses to expel this pupil. He is, however, overruled by the teachers and the secretary in the board reunion examining the case, and must resign.

So her beloved son can no longer benefit from an education. Incensed, the woman vows to go to another city; but she finds out that the place where she hides money has been pilfered, obviously by the Boss. She decides to meet him at his gambling den and to get her money back. He refuses; she kills him. The goddess ends up in jail, sentenced to twelve years, stunned and then worried about her son. But the school principal promises he sees to it the child is protected and educated.

The hyperbolic, affected first title card points to a melodrama riding on high emotions and high principles. But on second thoughts, there is something deliberately outrageous, blunt to attach so great a moral and religious value to the woman in a society where they have rather been put on the sidelines, and even more to a woman who can be deemed as promiscuous. But the film’s point is about her skills for motherhood, which has been seen as a cardinal virtue: a woman cannot do much in the social and political life, must give in to the power of the husband, the father, the master, or the emperor, but she remains precious and important because she gives birth to descendants and looks after them – this is a deeply ingrained view, in keeping with teachings of Kong Fu Zi. The film emphasizes that motherhood is such a great thing, especially when there is such a great dedication and conscious sacrifice on the part of the mother, that it should prod people to overlook the social conditions that could trap the mother.

The goddess is admirable because she is a good mother in spite of living on the fringe of the society out of a despicable trade. She and the child deserve a chance at improving their lot, despite what others may think. This is the conclusion the school’s principal draws; the film is basically a ringing indictment of narrow-minded people more concerned about social hierarchy than respect for the individual, more keen on blaming personal morality than on tackling wider social problems, which cause depravation and alienation.

That is why the film emphasizes so loudly the bond between mother and child, in genuinely delicate and plainly sentimental shots. This bond is exposed with both the most realistic and straightforward style and the most intense and candid interpretation. The work of the mother, by contrast, is barely shot, dealt with usually brief shots that are composed with the most amazing angles (one shot just captures a ballet of shoes walking around each other, the discreet suggestion of the contact and bargaining between a client and a prostitute, while another is a stunning high angle from a lamp street, showing two distant, faint figures walking away; all the time the film hints at the stealthy, secretive, sordid nature of the trade but does not linger on the topic). The woman is what she is socially speaking; but morally speaking, she is a role model, and that is what should be noted and praised. The school’s principal manages to get it, and he stubbornly behaves as a consequence: here is the case of a wise man, a scholar, who is true to the higher moral principles the Chinese wisdom and thinking have conceived – and this is why the film ends on his promise, a commitment the woman has wanted to believe in but that the society conveniently ignores. Of course, it also means the woman is powerless to shake up things on her own.

This debut feature is clearly on the side of the downtrodden, a leftist movie examining the virtues of a poor, unlucky woman to highlight how prejudiced and harsh the Chinese society remains, despite the pretense of modernity and reform. It fits with a wider critical vision of the nation among filmmakers and other artists, and proves melodrama is also a point of view on the world, not just an easy entertainment. “Shen nu – The Goddess” is not at all mawkish, in part because it seeks to be as realistic as possible when depicting the life of the woman (though it does not give any clues about her past and why she could remain trapped in her condition), with shots focused on ordinary chores, mundane domestic life, the routines of such a woman. Then there is the fervent, earnest performance of Ruan Lingyu, a real star at the apex of her talent at just 24; she is here full of feeling and highly expressive, vibrant and empathetic, perfectly conveying maternal love and the rage it stokes – her mad walk through the streets to go to the gambling den to get her money back is stunning, harrowing, an eloquent show of determination heralding a possible disaster. And this is a third element: the young filmmaker proves to have a true visual flair and to master camerawork finely; Wu Yonggang creates striking shots that can reflect the most tender feelings as well as the most dramatic and appalling developments, symbols of an evil that keeps spoiling life (like the shot on the Boss gambling away the dough he stole, with the lens acting as the table where he throws the cards, which yields an amazing close-up on a face seized by the folly of betting, or like the shots and reverse shots as the principal observes the apartment of the woman).

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