When we think of Chinese cinema, the sorts of movies that come to mind are movies like "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers". This makes Wu Yonggang's "Shénnǚ" ("The Goddess" in English) especially worth seeing. Considered one of the all-time masterpieces of Chinese silent cinema, it focuses on a destitute woman forced to work as a prostitute to support her son. The nameless protagonist is forced to become the property of a gambler, but her troubles don't end there.
The movie reminded me of King Vidor's "Stella Dallas", about a woman forced to sacrifice everything so that her daughter can have a better life. Indeed, what the protagonist here experiences is very much like what we see in Charlie Chaplin's movies. I understand that 1930s China was a tourist trap for westerners while still beset with poverty (not to mention the war crimes that Japan committed there).
The release came not long after the publication of Pearl Buck's novel "The Good Earth", about a Chinese peasant family. Much like how that book helped expose people in the US to the lives of ordinary Chinese without the negative stereotypes commonly attributed to them, this movie shows what the Chinese peasants had to do to survive in a world where the cards are stacked against them. An important part of cinema history. I recommend it.
PS: Although Ruan Lingyu was one of China's top movie stars at the time, her life turned out to be tragic: she committed suicide of a barbiturate overdose the year after the movie's release.
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