On 14th October 2014, the Queen Elizabeth Hall played host to Sino-cinematic royalty; airing a newly restored version of legendary silent film, The Goddess starring ‘Chinese-Garbo’- the enigmatic Ruan Lingyu as a tragic prostitute and single mother in 1930s Shanghai.
Chinese film is inarguably one of the finest visual feasts of world cinema; but amidst more accessible and stylish European counterparts is often overlooked. Ready to set the record straight for the first time in over thirty years, the BFI has collaborated with veritable institutions of the Chinese silver screen to bring us a season celebrating the rich diversity and beauty of the world’s most underrated cinema. The film has been little seen by western eyes and the screening has proved immensely successful- with a full auditorium.
It is an oft-forgotten fact that silent movies in the 20s and 30s had musical accompaniment during the film; and this screening is no exception. The English Chamber Orchestra provides a fitting serenade with a newly-commissioned score by prized composer Zou Ye; one with soaring erhu and guzheng solos to conjure the China of a bygone age. Both released and set in 1930s, the movie itself paints a vivid portrait of a contemporary Shanghai on the cusp of modernity and is extremely useful for reading a mythical city and their attitudes to women and dress.
Panning over Ruan’s prostitute’s dressing table- we see the effects of a city in the throes of a cultural melting pot; Pond’s Face Cream intermingled with Nestlé powdered baby-milk and ornamental oriental pottery. Behind, hanging from a wall are The Goddess’ few sartorial possessions: a traditional loose-fitting qipao in dark colours and significantly, a chiffon black and white polka-dot qipao cut in the ‘Western’ style with tremendous slits to the thigh, tightly fitting and with shortened cap sleeves; this is her ‘game’ dress. Her hair is highly styled and ‘waved’ as a French or American lady might have had at the time; she has a satin handbag and high heeled shoes- all very daring for a working class woman.
As we watch Ruan’s Goddess walking the streets of Shanghai searching for custom, we come to learn that her distinctive western style is read as a mark of indecency; a badge of her disrepute as a prostitute. Central characters cast disdainful looks as her colourful qipao passes: neighbours gossip; a principal looks on with shame. As is often the case in countries marked by imperialism, women were ‘tarnished’ should they adopt dress of their cultural oppressor. Writers of the time aligned donning of western dress with promiscuity and infidelity; female bodies belonged to the traditional and selling out to foreign, often ‘modern’ styles was a metaphor for selling out your culture and heritage: a contentious pursuit.
The film ends with her being sent to prison for the murder of her controlling, hateful pimp; ironically her incarceration is also her freedom from a lifetime of sexual servitude and insecurity. You might agree this storyline could belong in any modern Hollywood flick; hopefully the Ruan classic can help break the indifference surrounding vintage Chinese cinema. This really was a masterpiece.