Shen Nu “The Goddess” (1934) Review

Shen Nu “The Goddess” (1934) Director: Wu Yonggang

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“The Goddess” conveys a contrast between the dual lives of one unnamed woman (Ruan Lingyu). By day, she is a “divine” mother, caring for her young baby in Shanghai. By night, she is a prostitute, walking the streets to financially support her child. One night, while fleeing from the police, she accidentally enters the room of “The Thug,” a scummy boss who forces her to sleep with him in exchange for protection from the police. Following this encounter, he quickly grows possessive of her, and shows up unannounced at her house, claiming her as his own personal property. Meanwhile, he takes her money in order to finance his gambling habit. As she attempts to flee, he continues to track her down and confiscate all her money. When The Thug finds her new flat, he pretends to steal her baby unless she promises to remain with him.

In time, the woman saves enough money to send her son to a private school, but rumors swirl among the mothers at a children’s performance about the woman’s unsavory profession. When the school principal stands up for the mother, he is forced to resign and the boy is expelled. Meanwhile, The Thug finds her money stashed away in the wall. He promptly gambles it away, and when she confronts him about it, he beats her. In response, she grabs a bottle and lunges toward the camera, shattering it on his head –an act which kills him. She is then thrown in prison for murder. Her child is taken to an orphanage, but still sympathetic toward the young woman, the former school principal decides to adopt the boy. When he visits her in prison, she begs him not to tell the boy about his mother as he grows up. Her only solace in the long, lonely life in prison is the hope that her son has a bright future.        

“The Goddess” is a beautiful, contemplative silent picture from the Golden Age of Chinese cinema. It is a morality play which presents a study in tragic contrasts, asking us to sympathize with a lone, struggling woman doing what she can to raise her son. The “fallen woman” archetype appears in a variety of early films, from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East to the Josef von Sternberg’s films featuring Marlene Dietrich. In The Goddess, Ruan Lingyu delivers a wonderful performance as the anonymous woman. Why does the title refer to this woman as a “goddess”? Consider the background image behind each intertitle script –each intertitle shows a work of art of a nude woman with hands tied behind her back as she cares for her child. Despite being a challenge to Confucian conservatism (while paralleling the life of Mencius’s mother), in many ways the woman’s character is displayed through her repeated self-sacrifice. So much of this minimalist melodrama is told through images rather than dialogue. For example, one scene displays only feet walking along a public sidewalk when we see the feet of the woman as she meets with a client. It is an extraordinary method of storytelling which is replete throughout the film. I found The Goddess to be a true delight.  

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