Shanghai Film Series: Chinese Cinema Legend Ruan Lingyu

This Sunday the Asian Art Museum will be screening two films in a tribute to Ruan Lingyu, the legendary Shanghai film star. Although Ruan was not the most popular star of her day (that honor went to Butterfly Wu, who was elected “Empress of Film” by the city’s fervent moviegoers), her suicide on March 8, 1935 at the age of 25 bestowed Ruan with an immortality that has made her the undisputed icon of Chinese silent cinema. Since her life is well documented elsewhere, and also the subject of Sunday’s second feature, I won’t repeat it here. But I will encourage you to check out the biography written by Richard J. Meyer, Ruan Ling-Yu: The Goddess of Shanghai, which comes packaged with a DVD of The Goddess (1935), her best and most famous film. You can order it from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Plum blossom lovers Jin Yan and Lam Cho-cho

Sunday’s first feature, A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931), is an unexpected choice to showcase Ruan Lingyu. In spite of her top billing, she is not the movie’s leading lady. Nevertheless, Plum Blossoms is a fun and fascinating film that offers a rare glimpse of Ruan’s lighter side, which often gets lost in the shadow of her tragic life and more serious film roles.

Loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (and retaining the characters’ original names in its bilingual intertitles), A Spray of Plum Blossoms is set in contemporary China. In this version, the two gentlemen are newly graduated military cadets. Valentine (played by Jin Yan, an ethnic Korean who grew up in China and was elected Shanghai’s “Emperor of Film”) is eager to serve his country, while his friend Proteus (played by Wang Cilong) is more interested in girls than the future of China.

Ruan Lingyu is the quintessential “modern maiden”

When Valentine travels to Canton for his commission, Proteus stays behind and woos Valentine’s sister Julia (played by Ruan Lingyu). Described in the intertitles as “a model of the modern maidens”, Julia is a Chinese flapper just waiting to be loved (she first appears singing and dancing to an English tune titled “I Am Willing”). The quartet of lovers is completed by Valentine’s romantic interest, Silvia (played by Canadian-born Lam Cho-cho). She is the daughter of Canton’s military governor and, in contrast to Julia, is “a maiden with the spirit of masculinity”.

Helmed by Bu Wancang (who directed Ruan’s debut in 1927), A Spray of Plum Blossoms was one of the top three films produced by the Lianhua Film Company in 1931. The studio’s two other hits, Love and Duty and The Peach Girl (available on DVD from the San Francisco Silent Film Society), were also directed by Bu and featured Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan as the romantic leads.

It’s not hard to see why A Spray of Plum Blossoms was so popular. Combining the aching lyricism of the “Mandarin Duck and Butterflies” romance with the righteous heroics of the knight-errant tale, Bu Wancang added a dash of Hollywood, à la Pearl White and Douglas Fairbanks (both were favorites with Chinese audiences), to create an enchanting blend of East and West.

Maggie Cheung’s award-winning portrayal of Ruan Lingyu

Sunday’s second feature is Center Stage (1992), by Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan. Eschewing the traditional biopic format, Kwan incorporates discussions with the film’s actors about the historical figures they are playing, interviews with people who worked with Ruan Lingyu, and footage from her surviving movies. It’s a testament to Kwan, and especially to Maggie Cheung (who stars as Ruan), that in spite of the self-referential reminders of its construction, I was completely drawn into the drama of Ruan Lingyu’s life. At times, I even felt like I was witnessing Ruan’s resurrection.

Indeed, there is a ghostly presence that permeates Center Stage. The film opens with a succession of movie stills from Ruan’s early films (of the 28 titles that she made between 1927 and 1935, only 8 survive), followed by an interview with Maggie Cheung in which Kwan asks her whether she hopes to be remembered half a century from now. Later, when Kwan recreates a scene from one of Ruan’s lost films, accompanied by the film’s title, date, director, and the words “no longer available”, one can’t help but feel the fragility of life and a pang of loss. After the second such scene, Kwan inserts for the first time in the film moving images of Ruan Lingyu. The effect is transcendent.

In an interview with Kwan (featured as an extra on the DVD), he relates an unusual experience that happened to cinematographer Poon Hang Seng when they were shooting the scene of Ruan’s suicide. According to Poon, he saw the spirit of Ruan at the door, weeping as she watched Maggie Cheung reenact her suicide.

Whether you believe this anecdote or not, there’s no denying that Center Stage compellingly brings Ruan Lingyu back to life for a new generation of movie fans.

— Contributed by Dave Wells, who writes for Soft Film: Vintage Chinese Cinema.

One Response to “Shanghai Film Series: Chinese Cinema Legend Ruan Lingyu”

  1. Nancy  on April 17th, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    I just found the most interesting website with posts about Chinese Cinema:

    One of the more recent posts is about a contemporary Chinese actress but older posts go into different period of cinema. There’s a silent (?) movie about a childless Chinese couple. The man buys a concubine to bear him a son and much drama ensues. When the concubine fails to bear a son, he wants to sell her back to her family. I haven’t seen the move so I can’t speak to the quality but it certainly seems fascinating -women as second class citizens (if that) and anything for a son!

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