From the Archive – Glass looks the legendary talent and legacy of screen star Ruan Lingyu


Imitation of Life –  Silent film actress Ruan Lingyu became a screen icon far ahead of her time. Glass examines the legendary talent and legacy of one of China’s greatest movie stars

RUAN Lingyu had yet to feature in a talking picture when she committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills – the attempt was not the first in her life, on screen or otherwise – briefly after midnight on March 8, 1935. She was 24.

A consequence of delayed medical treatment (Ruan was selfishly taken by her married lover Tang Jishan to a remote, and unhelpful, clinic where she would presumably not be recognised), the silent film actress’s untimely death came ironically the day before she was due to speak at a girls’ school to commemorate International Women’s Day but also provided the unfortunate irony that she would be kept silent, altogether, both on and off screen for ever. Her suicide note – carrying the famous last words “Gossip is a fearful thing,” which were adopted by modernist writer Lu Xun in his condemnatory essay of the popular press two months afterwards – was later proved to be a forgery, presumably made on Tang’s orders.

Ruan in the film A Sea of Fragrant SnowRuan in the film A Sea of Fragrant Snow

Few people from Ruan Lingyu’s generation have lived to learn the whole truth about her life. The only consensus, without the slightest hint of doubt, is that Ruan Lingyu was the greatest star of the Golden Age of Chinese films. Over 100,000 mourners attended her funeral procession, which stretched for several kilometres. While a Variety report observed that Ruan’s ceremony surpassed even pop icon Rudolph Valentino’s Hollywood funeral, a New York Times front-page story called it “the most spectacular funeral of the century.” The Chinese actress would remain a household name in her country up to this day, despite the fact that only about one third of her 29 films are still known to exist.

“Ruan is an exceptional actress not only of the silent period, but of Chinese cinema in general,” says respected film scholar Ain-ling Wong, formerly the Programmer of Asian Cinema at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Research Officer at the Hong Kong Film Archive. “Her sensitivity and diversity have always been a model for other Chinese actresses. For example, Pak Yin – the diva of Cantonese cinema of the 1950s and ‘60s – quoted Ruan as her idol. Her portrayal of Chinese women caught in the turbulent changes of the time influenced generations of Chinese cinema, but few actresses could match the complexity of Ruan.”

Ruan in the GoddessRuan in the Goddess

The actress’s life was, to all appearances, a tumultuous one, and there have been many accounts to suggest that when she turned into a mesmerising force of nature on the movie set she was merely channelling her sadness from lived experiences. Ruan was born as Fenggen, the second child of a Cantonese family living in Shanghai. Her elder sister died soon after her birth and she lost her father, a low-paid machinist working for a British firm, to tuberculosis when she was six. Living in a state of poverty that would subsequently be shared by many of her on-screen characters, Ruan and her mother moved into a former Qing dynasty official’s wealthy estate, where Ruan’s mother worked as a domestic maid.

Ruan’s rise and fall as a tragic icon was set in motion at an early age. During the year that followed her 16th birthday, she was proposed to, reportedly raped, and then made common law wife to the very perpetrator of both these acts: Zhang Damin, Ruan’s first lover and the youngest son of the estate’s patriarch. A gambling addict and an emotionally abusive partner, Zhang would go on to repeatedly extort money from Ruan for the rest of her exhausted life. It was also at the age of 16 that Ruan replied to an advertisement by Ming Xing Film Company, the leading studio in Shanghai at the time, and starred in her first movie, Husband and Wife in Name (Guaming de fuqi, 1927), ironically about a chaotic arranged marriage.

Ruan in New WomenRuan in New Women

In the space of two years, Ruan would feature in four more films at Ming Xing, where it had seemed unlikely that she would ever be able to overtake the studio’s leading lady, Hu Die (aka Butterfly Wu), before moving on to the newly-formed Lianhua Film Company and subsequently becoming the country’s biggest star.

“Lianhua is a very important studio in Chinese film history in many, many ways, and among them the talents that it employed: not only Ruan Lingyu, but also a lot of important directors, like Cai Chusheng and Sun Yu,” says Sam Ho, the current Programmer at the Hong Kong Film Archive. “It’s a company that was formed when the industry was at a primitive stage and it represents the attempt or the ideal to integrate Chinese morality and the Western concept of capitalism.”

Ruan in her last film, Civil WindRuan in her last film, Civil Wind

Established in March 1930, Lianhua represented a concerted effort of the nation’s best writers, directors and actors to improve the quality of Chinese cinema, while popularising certain social themes, like class struggle and feudalism, in a domestic market dominated by violent, superstitious or generally frivolous movies, which Ruan had also been previously involved in. Although she swiftly rose to fame – Ruan starred in four out of ten films that Lianhua produced in 1931 – it wasn’t until her role in Three Modern Women (Sange modeng nüxing, 1933), which she actively fought for, that Ruan truly came into her own as a symbol of women’s liberation.

In the Bu Wancang-directed film, the actress played a rebellious, almost revolutionary character, which contrasted somewhat with her usual helpless and downtrodden roles. It revealed a progressive side to Ruan that could easily be neglected from an oeuvre that has seen her play factory worker, beggar, teacher, social butterfly, nun and, perhaps most famously, prostitute. After all, Ruan was an icon in the tradition of ‘suffering Chinese women’ movies, which appealed not just to the female viewers, but the general public at large.

“The early 20th century was a time when the Chinese were suffering in many ways, both mentally and physically, even collectively as a people and that ‘suffering woman’ persona captured the spirit,” says Ho of the historical context behind Ruan’s popularity. “It reflected the reality of the women who suffered, but also very much the male artists’ projection of their own suffering, frustration and failure. When the poets (especially of an earlier era) expressed their sadness, a lot of the time it’s articulated through a feminine sensibility. The ‘suffering woman’ is an archetype in Chinese culture.”

If Ruan’s entrenched place in the public consciousness was a consequence of her easily identifiable characters, her place in film history comes from a star persona that was distinctly her own. Nobody had previously acted as naturalistically as Ruan: her generation was characterised by its actors’ exaggerated expressions and body movements amid the absence of synchronised dialogue. “She expresses her emotions with great subtlety, fluidity and flair, like water rippling,” Wong remarks, “a very rare quality in silent cinema where most actors tend to ‘overact’. Ruan simply captivates the camera, with the smooth flow of her body and the subtle – and almost unnoticeable – changes of her facial expressions.”

In a brief sequence from The Goddess (Shennü, 1934), which has been used in countless film history classes to illustrate the astonishing nuance possible in the silent era, Ruan’s prostitute character reveals a diverse range of emotions almost entirely with her face alone. After fleeing from the police in a worried state, a relieved Ruan finds herself in an apartment belonging to a wicked gambler. Nonetheless, she regains her feisty mood, defiantly blowing cigarette smoke in the gambler’s face. “People say that realistic acting began with Marlon Brando in America, but look at Ruan here,” says Mark Cousins in his 15-hour documentary The Story of Film, referring to the sequence. “This is decades before Brando,” adds the film critic.

Maggie Cheung as Ruan in the film Centre StageMaggie Cheung as Ruan in the film Centre Stage

 Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scene was re-enacted by the Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung in Centre Stage (aka Actress, 1991), director Stanley Kwan’s docudrama on the life and work of Ruan. Structured with a meta-fictional flourish, the now-classic film provides a fascinating reflection on movie stardom by juxtaposing original footage of Ruan’s films with Cheung’s portrayal of partly fictionalised episodes from Ruan’s private life, as well as real-life interviews with Cheung, Kwan and other cast members of the film. It’s a testament to the project’s complexity and relevance that Cheung was named best actress at Taipei’s Golden Horse Awards and the Hong Kong Film Awards, while also receiving a Silver Bear for best actress at the 42nd Berlin International Film Festival.

It is a popular perception that Ruan was the Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich of China, and Kwan certainly had fun with the notion in his film. In one dramatic sequence, Tony Leung Ka-fai (in the role of director Cai Chusheng) asks Cheung (as Ruan) if she’s “copying Marlene Dietrich again.” He says – “I can’t imagine how Dietrich would look as a housewife, a factory worker or a woman in distress. But why is everybody saying you look like her?” – To which Cheung playfully replies, “Because I’m sexy playing a woman in distress.” Incidentally, Kwan was inspired to make Centre Stage after watching six of Ruan’s films at a 1988 screening programme on three screen legends, which was curated by Ain-ling Wong when she was the Head of Film Programming at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.

Ultimately, the fascination with and tragedy of Ruan lies in the life-imitating-art-imitating-life aspect of her fate. The actress’s dignified character in her second last film, Cai Chusheng’s New Woman (Xin nüxing, 1934), was based on the tragic story of real-life actress and scriptwriter Ai Xia, who killed herself after being hounded by malicious tabloid gossips about her personal life. As journalists were incensed into retaliation by Cai’s portrayal of them in a manifestly negative light, they found an easy scapegoat in Ruan, whose relationships with her past and current lovers, Zhang Damin and Tang Jishan, had turned decidedly ugly.

Ruan would continue working on her 29th film, Civil Wind (Guofeng, 1935), until a few days before her final suicide attempt. As history repeated itself and the actress made her exit, only her legacy – delicately balanced between her real and acting lives, which have been perceived by many as being one and the same – would remain.

by Edmund Lee

From the Glass Archive – Issue 9 – Hope

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