(Wu Yonggang, China)
The Goddess is one of those movies you just sit back and soak in. I often take little notes while watching movies, but I didn’t feel compelled to do anything other than stare at the screen and follow the journey of the nameless prostitute trying to raise her son and giving him the advantages she never had, something most parents want for their children. Director Wu Yonggang put together one of, if not the, best movies to come out of pre-World War II China. His style is fluid and graceful, his narrative is tight, and his themes are informed by history and politics without being bogged down by them (which was often the case with some of the prominent Leftist directors of China like Sun Yu and Shen Xiling, though they still managed to make some good films).
The story is simple enough. A young woman (Ruan Lingyu) earns her living and supports her young son through prostitution. She is “claimed” as a bride by a brutish leech of a man who terrorizes her, steals her money and threatens to sell her son if she tries to leave him. Meekly and without enthusiasm she lives with the man, though she squirrels away most of her money in a secret hiding place so she can send her son to school. As if things are not tough enough for the young mother, the women of her neighborhood resent her and take it out on her son, forbidding their children from playing with her son and starting a whispering campaign to have him expelled from school.
There isn’t a false note in the picture. Ruan Lingyu, a popular Chinese actress of the 1930s who died not long after this picture, is sublime as the embattled mother and the boy who plays her son is absurdly cute and innocent. The movie feels so true that it could have been made last year. It does not shy away from tough or uncomfortable issues the way U.S. movies did at the same time (1934 was the year anxious prudes instituted the Hays Code in Hollywood, essentially eliminating any frank discussion of sexuality in U.S. film). Wu does not demonize Ruan’s character for selling sex; rather she is exalted for doing everything she can to give her son what he needs. The problem is no matter what culture we are talking about, no one seems to be able to accept a woman who has sex for money. Her son will not be able to escape the shame of his mother’s profession as he grows. The irony is, like most prostitutes, she isn’t in that line for kicks; it’s a necessity. If she cannot make a living any other way, what is she to do?
I have read that the word “goddess” in Chinese was slang for a prostitute. I don’t know if that is true, but it adds a certain irony to the flavor of the film. Above all, I see this picture as a celebration of motherhood, which is more than a mother-child relationship, but the consummation of a mother’s entire being. The woman’s only thoughts are how to improve the life of her son in a society and economy that offered women, especially single women, few legitimate economic opportunities.
That Wu’s The Goddess isn’t seen more today is a shame. It is one of the greats of Chinese and world cinema, a pure example of simple stories exploring real relationships knocking the big budget blockbusters out of the water. Luckily modern technology is making it easier to find; a kind and generous person uploaded the picture on You Tube and the next time you have a spare hour and a half I recommend you sit down to watch The Goddess. The first of eight parts is here.