From the canvas to the cinema.
David Liu | 14 April 2014
The Birth of Venus (Sandro Botticelli, 1486; tempera on canvas)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam, 1988)
From flying nymphs to a fertile seashell, Gilliam recreates Botticelli’s masterpiece beat-by-beat for this vivid entrance by Venus (Uma Thurman).
The Goddess / 神女 (Wu Yonggang, 1934)
David Liu | 20 March 2014
One of the silent era’s great achievements, The Goddess bears the full weight of 24-year-old star Ruan Lingyu’s suicide the following year. In a performance that rivals Renée Falconetti’s Joan of Arc for its emotional scope, Ruan portrays a lower-class woman who resorts to prostitution to provide for her young son. The film’s allegorical depiction of her suffering makes it the most representative work of China’s so-called leftist movement, a period highlighted by rich social critiques such as Spring Silkworms (1933) and The Big Road (1935).
Through her struggle to win financial stability for her son, the picture exposes us to elements of class division and injustice in 1930s Shanghai. From a self-absorbed gangster to a sympathetic school headmaster, characters establish themselves as either obstacles or saviors to her cause. First-time director Wu crafts an urban melodrama through montages of Shanghai at night and poetic closeups of Ruan, marrying the city’s unknowable vastness to the protagonist’s inner emotional universe. It’s one of the first and finest character-driven pictures in Eastern cinema, with a central performance that still mesmerizes today.
Drawing from her paparazzi-infected personal life, Ruan’s personification of the embittered, self-sacrificial prostitute — groundbreaking for its time — led Wu to remark:
"Sometimes my imagination and requirement of her roles are not as delicate or profound as what she experienced. During the shoot, her emotion is so undisturbed by anything outside and her representation is always so lucid and real, like a water tap — you want it on, it’s on, you want it off, it’s off."
In 1992, Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan translated Ruan’s life and career to the screen in the biopic Center Stage, with Maggie Cheung earning Best Actress honors at the Berlin International Film Festival for her nuanced portrayal of the Golden Age star. Fifth-generation Chinese director Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine) listed the film as his favorite picture of the 1930s, and indeed, Concubine's opening segment — in which a prostitute gives up her son to the opera — recalls the humanity and desperation of The Goddess.
Previous entries in Chinese Cinema Essentials:
Love Among the Ruins: Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town