Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Simply told, Goddess is the story of a loving mother who lives as a prostitute on the streets of Shanghai. One evening, after an escape from the police, she falls foul of a gang hoodlum who rapes her and threatens her way of life. He exploits her by threatening her boy. After a while, she becomes determined to give the boy an education, his only hope for escaping the city. She works hard for the money to do so, under the nose of the thug. The son's schooling goes well, until gossipmongering about the Goddess' lifestyle filter throughout the school - and the headmaster investigates.

It is almost inconcievable that Ruan Lingyu, a young actress with little schooling, created one of cinemas great heroes - bolstering her extreme means to survive, sacrificing sexuality at any cost to preserve her son from the foul nature of the city. The film's use of location as narrative drive is endearing, binding the strong heroine to her surroundings echoes Lewis Grassic Gibbon's great Scottish classic Sunset Song. The 1934 Shanghai is a modern, corrupt and inescapable trap, which cannot save the Goddess, but with enough help and love, may just spare her son from the same.

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Without context, this viewer can only begin to imagine the effect of this revolutionary socially realistic movement in cinematic storytelling. By delivering a truly moral tale with a faultless central performance, it makes its case very clear for salvation of anyone, even the lowest of society's lows.

It fits beautifully into a time period where sound was taking off in Hollywood - combining pantomimish acting styles for everyone other than Lingyu, with an appreciation for simpler classical narrative. The first 30 minutes are a model of Ozu-like wry simplicity in establishing the characters and their dynamics, wants and needs. There's occasionally some effective camerawork (witness the shot of her viewpoint, darting for a place to hide her money) - but the studio sets and often terribly unconvincing performances let the film down.

The Cinema China screening I attended had a newly commissioned score by Kimho Ip, performed live. It is surprisingly effective, although I can't say the music is inseparable from the picture - the musical interpretation is often simply too bold and daring to synchronise with the comparative primitivity of the film. When the movie and music reaches its climax we inevitably forget the symbiotic relationship of film and score and simply savour the moment.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2007
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A prostitute in 1930s Shanghai tries to build a future for her son.

Director: Wu Yonggang

Writer: Wu Yonggang

Starring: Ruan Lingyu, Tian Jian, Keng Li, Li Junpan, Tang Huaiqiu, Zhang Zhizhi

Year: 1934

Runtime: 77 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: China


Cinema China 2007

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