Tuesday, 10 March 2009
The Peach Girl
Ruan Lingyu is one of the most iconic symbols of Chinese film. Her tragedy has universal relevance. A few years back a biopic was made of her, but reality was even more interesting.
To understand Ruan, understand the society she came from. Her parents were Cantonese who'd moved to Shanghai, a cosmopolitan boomtown that had suddenly sprung up in the late 19th century. By the time Ruan was born in 1905, Shanghai was one of the biggest, most sophisticated cities in the world, rivalling New York.
But Ruan's father died young and her destitute mother had to turn to the Cantonese community in Shanghai for help. She became a household servant for a wealthy family called Zhang, whose sons were flash young playboys. Needless to say a pretty innocent like Ruan caught their eyes. So she was "married" at 15. The Zhangs owned movie studios. The movie business in China was every bit as active as Hollywood, even then, and Ruan soon became a star. She left the Zhangs and moved to other studios and other "husbands". But no matter how successful an actress might be she was still low status, cruelly treated. Eventually Ruan got caught up in a court case and the tabloids blackened her name so badly that she was driven to suicide, at the age of only 24.
Like Rudolf Valentino, her funeral drew the biggest crowds Shanghai had ever seen, complete with copycat suicides. (also like Valentino). Even Lu Xun, the great writer and intellectual, commented on her case, denouncing the power of the media. For some reason, Chinese movie actresses seemed drawn to early suicide - Grace Chang, Lin Dai and others, as if it were a career path. It would be fascinating to understand why, for it says something about the position of women as artists in early/mid 20th century China.
Movies in that period were important because they often dealt with social issues and the impact of modern life, even if they used sentimental storylines. More so perhaps than Hollywood ? That would be interesting to explore. All I can think of offhand is Chaplin's The Immigrant. Ruan's most famous role was in the film Goddess (1934) where she plays an innocent girl who gets seduced and abandoned, forced into prostitution. She sacrifices nobly to bring up her young son, so he will be a success even if she suffers for it. But of course it all ends badly. Here is a clip from an earlier film, The Peach Girl (1931) which is so moving. She's at the spinning wheel when a city lad spots her. " A city girl's beauty depends on powder and rouge. But this is true beauty !" It's a silent film to which someone has added a piano piece, Chinese but written in westerns style. It's beautiful too and frustratingly familiar - anyone know who wrote it? See the comment below - the composer is David Sosin. Great stuff, sounds just like the real thing - a compliment.