Tragic Goddess: Ruan Lingyu 悲剧女神阮玲玉

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Ruan Lingyu (阮玲玉 Ruǎn Língyù) was born on April 26, 1910. She was a silent-film actress still remembered by many, left behind 29 films and the final message, “gossip can kill,” when she committed suicide in Shanghai on March 8, 1935. As one of the most prominent Chinese film stars of the 1930s, her tragic death at the age of 24 led her to become an icon of Chinese cinema. 

Ruan Lingyu was China’s first film actress to win extensive praise from the public. Her appearance marked the turning point when Chinese cinema rid itself of the fetters of the stylized performances typical of contemporary dramas and took to the road of realistic performance.

Ruan LingYu was discovered by director Bu Wancang from Star Film Company and starred in her first film Husband and Wife in Name (1926). The film was a mild success and she starred several films for Star in the next few years. Her career took off when she left Star and joined Da Zhonghua Baihe Film Company which merged with other companies and became Lianhua Film Company later. The first film she starred for Lianhua, A Dream in the Old Capital (1929) was a huge success and made her name. In Lianhua, Ruan Ling-Yu worked with a group of creative and exciting young directors and writers and starred in a dozen of critical acclaimed yet commercially successful films, including Wild Flowers by the Road (1930), Love and Duty (1931), Little Cuttie (1933), Goodbye Shanghai (1934), New Women (1934), The Goddess (1934). Her ability to understand and convey the director’s intention was universally praised by the directors she worked with.

During her short life, Ruan Lingyu created images of women of different social strata including widows and weak women who were maltreated to death under the feudal code of ethics; prostitutes exploited by despotic gentry and sons of rich families; naive, pure girls of humble birth; young women struggling for free marriage; advanced women who integrated themselves with the laboring people and fought for the interests of the nation; and old women, girl students, a women writer, a flower girl and a social beauty. Her unaffected, sensitive character portrayals contrast with the false, exaggerated performance that predominates in many films today.

Ruan was excellent in the role of a humiliated and hurt young mother in The Goddess. She fully expressed the young mother’s complicated psychological state in the presence of or behind people and her kindness, honesty, and spirit of resistance when facing her son. The film shines with an eternal artistic brilliance, which was evident when it was shown abroad in recent years. “After being treated by the director,” said a French movie critic, “the depressed beauty of Ruan Lingyu and her simple, unadorned performing skills radiate brilliance. The most brilliant part of her performance calls back to mind the works of the German film director Pabast G. W..

Ruan’s acting was so natural, accurate and graceful that, even after 70 years, her films still seem fresh. She was adept at conveying meaning through her whole body, thus overcoming the limitations of early silent films, unlike some performers today who talk and talk and express nothing through gesture and “body language.”

In 1982, when a Chinese Film Retrospective was held in Italy, audiences were amazed at Ruan’s talent, especially in the film Goddess. They called Ruan “China’s Greta Garbo.”

Ruan was born in Shanghai in 1910. Her father, a penniless machinist, died when she was just five years old. For a while she went to live with her mother who was working as a housemaid for a rich family. She then went to a girl’s school, but as soon as she had finished primary school, she began to look for a job to lighten her mother’s load. She saw an advertisement for film actors, went for an interview and was given a job.

Her first screen appearance in 1927 was in the film Husband and Wife in Name. In spite of her lack of formal education, she was diligent and scrupulous in every detail of her acting. These qualities, combined with her beauty, made her screen images very impressive.

Contrast to her success on the screen, her personal life was a tragedy. She fell in love with Zhang Damin, the young master of the house her mother worked, before starting her film career. They lived together eventually. But in a class-divided society they couldn’t get married because of the objection from Zhang Damin’s mother. Their relationship deteriorated when she became successful. She later left Zhang and lived with a businessman Tang Jishan. When Zhang sued Tang for damage this became a scandal in 30s Shanghai and Ruan Ling-Yu was hounded by the tabloid press. Under severe pressure, Ruan Ling-Yu finally decided to take her own life to prove her innocence by sleeping pill overdose in the early morning of 8th March, 1935.

The whole of Shanghai wept when the news of her death was heard. When she was buried at Lianyi Villa outside Shanghai, several hundred thousand mourners lined the road to watch her funeral procession.

Ruan’s sudden death ignited fierce debate on the behavior of tabloid newspapers and the protection of women in public life. The great writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) published an essay Gossip Is a Fearful Thing, denouncing the newspaper bloodhounds and gossip mongers.

Ruan LingYu’s screen charisma and tragic life have since been fascinated by many people. Hong Kong directors Stanley Kwan’s The Actress (1991) starring Maggie Cheung tells the story of Ruan LingYu poetically which won Maggie Cheung the Silver Bear in Berlin Film Festival and several Hong Kong Film Awards.

* The Couple in Name (挂名的夫妻, 1927)

* The White Cloud Pagoda (白云塔, 1928)

* Suicide Contract (自杀合同, 1929)

* Reminiscence of Peking (故都春梦, 1930)

* Wild Flowers (野草闲花, 1930)

* A Spray of Plum Blossoms (一剪梅, 1931)

* Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood (桃花泣血记, 1931)

* Love and Duty (恋爱与义务, 1931)

* Little Toys (小玩意, 1933)

* Three Modern Women (三个摩登女性, 1933)

* Goodbye, Shanghai (再会吧,上海, 1934)

* A Sea of Fragrant Snow (香雪海, 1934)

* The Goddess (神女, 1934)

* New Women (新女性, 1934)

* National Custom (国风, 1935)

Centre Stage, also known as Actress and Yuen Ling-yuk, is a 1992 Hong Kong film, directed by Stanley Kwan.

The film is based on a true story: the tragic life of China’s first prima donna of the silver screen, Ruan Lingyu. This movie chronicles her rise to fame as a movie actress in Shanghai during the 1930s. Actress Maggie Cheung portrayed Ruan in this movie.

Nicknamed the “Chinese Garbo,” Ruan Lingyu began her acting career when she was 16 years old and committed suicide at age 24.

The film alternates between present scenes (production talks between director Kwan, Cheung, and co-star Carina Lau, interviews of witnesses who knew Ruan), re-creation scenes with Cheung (as Ruan, acting inside this movie), and extracts from Ruan’s original films including her final two films The Goddess and New Women.

Located in an old alley in Shanghai, the three-story building was once the home of Ruan Lingyu and her mother. It was on March 7, 1935, in this house that the actress killed herself.

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