Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Upcoming at the Asian: Shanghai (opening Feb 12). Remembering a forgotten star, Ruan Lingyu

The Asian Art Museum is getting ready for their next show, "Shanghai, " which will open on February 12th. For now, everybody is working like crazy to pull the exhibit together and it looks to be another exciting show. In its heyday, Shanghai, founded by the British as part of their trading concessions from the fading Manchu Empire, presented a fascinating, colorful and sometimes decadent synthesis of East and West.  Deborah Clearwaters,the director of education and public programs, has been assigned to find interesting film clips of Shanghai for possible use in the exhibit.

Of course, Western film buffs are familiar with Dietrich's famous quote, "It took a lot of men to make Shanghai Lil," from "The Shanghai Express (1932) which also stared the ravishing Anna Mae Wong. Another riff on Shanghai but one which had little to do with the real city was Orson Wells "The Lady from Shanghai,” starring his then wife, Rita Haworth. But I am interested in the native and pre WW II Chinese cinema and remembered the film that I'd seen on Turner Classic Movies, staring Ruan Lingyu, a major Chinese film star of the 1930's.

Born in Shanghai in 1910, Ruan made her first film at the age of 16 for the then prominent Mingxing Film Studio. She was brought up by her mother who worked as a house maid to provide for her. Her first big break came in Spring Dream of an Old Capital (Reminiscences of Beijing, 1930). A massive hit, it was her first major work after signing for the newly-formed Lianhua Studio. Ruan's acting was so natural, accurate and graceful that, even after 70 years, her films still seem fresh.

Thereafter Ruan became the company's major film star. Her best works came after 1931, starting with the melodrama Love and Duty (1931) (directed by Bu Wancang). Beginning with Three Modern Women (1932; dir: Bu Wanchang), Ruan started collaborating with a group of talented leftist directors; most of her subsequent films have a strong socialist slant to them. In Little Toys (1933), a film by Sun Yu, Ruan played a long-suffering toy-maker. Her next film, Shenn¸ (The Goddess, 1934; dir: Wu Yonggang), is often hailed as the pinnacle of Chinese silent cinema, with Ruan's portrayal of a sympathetic prostitute bringing up a child one of the classics of the era. Later that year, Ruan made her penultimate film, New Women with director Cai Chusheng, where she played an educated Shanghai woman forced to death by an unfeeling society. A final film, National Custom was released shortly after her death.

In 1935, during the shooting of her last film, a divorce suit and slanderous stories in unscrupulous local newspapers caused her a great deal of mental anguish. She finally decided to take her own life to prove her innocence.

The Goddess (1934) is a tragic tale of shame and maternal sacrifice. We are introduced to the central character (Ruan, whom we will call the "Goddess," though she remains unnamed in the film) through a series of close ups of the furnishings of her room: makeup and perfume, elegant dresses, a child's toy and food, a crib. As might be deduced, she is a prostitute, who sells herself on the bustling, neon-lit streets of Shanghai to support herself and her baby son. This film about lower class life in 1920's China was painfully honest. Even now, some of the scenes of poverty and brutality have the power to shock. So much of the early Chinese Cinema was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during WW II; we are lucky that this survived. This is just a taste of the treasures that we and the world lost through that tragic conflict.

Tragic Goddess: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bjweekend/2006-04/07/content_562388.htm
 Asian Art Museum Blog - Shanghai FIlm Clips: http://www.asianart.org/blog/index.php/2010/01/12/shanghai-film-clips/


Deborah Clearwaters said...

Nancy, I am interested to see The Goddess based on your posts here and on the museum's blog. We will be showing a documentary about Ruan Lingyu's gifted talents and tragic life at the museum on one of the first Sundays. We are still finalizing the schedule, but will update the site soon with more details.

namastenancy said...

I believe that the whole film is up on uTube but that's not the same as viewing it on the screen. She really was an amazing talent. To me, her life represented the tragedy of early 20th century China - so much potential for a freer society crushed by the weight of both repressive social customs and the coming decades long wars, both China's civil wars and the brutal Japanese invasion.

Shawn Deny said...

Deborah Clearwaters,the director of education and public programs, has been assigned to find interesting film clips of Shanghai for possible use in the exhibit.
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