(director/writer: Wu Yonggang; cinematographer: Hong Weilie; music: Donald Sosin; cast: Ruan Lingyu (The Goddess), Zhang Zhizhi (The Boss); Runtime: 78; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Richard J. Meyer/Luo Mingyou; TCM; 1934-silent-China-in Chinese with English subtitles)

“Tragic tale of shame and sacrifice.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This landmark historical Chinese silent stars Ruan Lingyu, born in 1910. She’s China’s ill-fated legendary actress, considered her greatest actress of that era. The talented but troubled young actress, who began acting in 1927 and had already completed 29 films before she committed suicide in 1935 at the age of 24, left behind a note that said “Gossip is a fearful thing.” Onscreen Ruan passionately portrayed a prostitute with a heart of gold, who was a self-sacrificing mother. Shanghai at the time was a city in the midst of a civil war between the communists and national forces, and because of the severe poverty it is believed that one out of every thirteen women was a prostitute (some 100,000). The Shanghai actress was the subject of Stanley Kwan‘s 1992 biopic “The Actress,” starring Maggie Cheung.

The 27-year-old writer-director Wu Yonggang(“Tea Boy Kidding His Master”/”Third Sister Liu”/”A Remote Village”) does justice to this tragic tale of shame and sacrifice. The unnamed heroine is played by Ruan Lingyu, and is referred to as the Goddess. The Shanghai resident works at night as a streetwalker to support her infant son. Things take a turn for the worse when during a police raid of the red-light district, to escape the Goddess is forced to hide in the apartment of a portly street criminal known as the “Boss (Zhang Zhizhi)” and later is forced to secure him as her uncaring pimp. This dire situation causes the Goddess to flee the city with her child for an industrial city, where she experiences hard times. The pimp soon tracks her down and kidnaps her child, forcing her to work for him again. Determined that her shunned son by society gets a good education and a chance for a better life, she saves money for him on the sly. At school bullies pick on the kid and mock him as a bastard. When the parents in the school object to the prostitute’s son attending, the school board expels him despite the impassioned pleas of the sympathetic principal to let him attend. As a result, the principled principal resigns in protest.

When the pimp discovers her secret stash, he tries to take it from her and she kills him in self-defense. The unjust judicial system sentences her to twelve years in prison. We’re now left to ponder if she will ever see her child again and who will take care of him while she’s imprisoned.

The flawed film because of its overbearing story, is still a must see because of Ruan’s stunning heart-tugging performance and its welcomed message of tolerance for others.