A trailer for the Pacific Film Archive's latest film series, Beauty and Sacrifice: Images of Women in Chinese Cinema, could run just a few seconds long, captured by a single, pained look of a female protagonist, looking longingly, and grieving wordlessly, to the sky.
The program, starting this Friday and running until December 8, is a companion series to the Berkeley Art Museum's exhibit, Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting. And like a painting, the selection of films reveals women dressed in fine clothes, though stifled under layers of propriety.
Three films star or are about legendary actress Ruan Lingyu, a champion of Shanghai cinema's tragic, modern woman.These films feature single mothers down on their luck, but who envision themselves as part of an emerging class of independent women. They also clearly and unromantically illustrate the limitations of women during this time, who for all their self reliance and self-determination, had very few options available to them.
Wu Yonggang's 1934 silent film, The Goddess, was originally conceived as an oil painting, inspired by both the misery and steely resolve of the prostitutes the director often passed on his way to work. The film, featuring Ruan Lingyu, reveals the woman's struggle to survive and provide for her child as a virtuous one that brings its own unending stream of sorrows, including a mobster who stalks her and claims her as his property. Ruan's classic move here is a look upwards to a Shanghai skyline that continually dims.
Bleak narratives showing both the strengths and limitations of women, these films also champion virtuous mothers, who remain moral champions even when steeped in vice. In Cai Chusheng's New Women (1935) – one of Ruan Lingyu's final films -- the actress plays Wei Ming, a well-liked schoolteacher and burgeoning writer. But the settings for optimism have little place in a cinema of stark, disappointing reality. The Goddess and New Women, staples of Chinese cinema, have already etched out their thesis: Women -- no matter how smart, accomplished, and independent they may be -- are eventually reduced to their value and usefulness to men.
It's the very men who long to be with her that end up being catalysts for her eventual demise. Wei Ming shrugs off the advances of a rich (and married) banker and also those of a potential newspaper employer, who later publishes an article exposing her shame. But beset by financial woes and an ailing (and secret) daughter, she finds that, in choosing the path of independence and self-sufficiency, she has very few options. Prostitution is her next move, and it's one of desperation. New Women are, in this film, much the same as old women: fodder for men, whether it be for their highly anticipated book sales, or for their sensational news clips.
Ruan's suicide at the height of her career – and only months after her onscreen suicide in New Women -- forever cemented her in memory as a star. Her life and times get the biopic treatment in Stanley Kwan's Center Stage (1992), starring Maggie Cheung. It's an unconventional, Modernist biography -- one that features documentary interviews with Ruan's contemporaries, reenacted scenes, original film footage, and modern-day discussions with the actors portraying her and her contemporaries, discussing her motivations and life behind the scenes.
While the series is one focused on the role women play in Chinese cinema, Kwan's film broadens the discussion, illuminating the role Ruan Lingyu played not only on screen, but in her real life, and in our imaginations, as a legend. It's one that, not unlike her characters, was as a woman perpetually running away from men.
In the Mood for Love
The series includes two additional films, In the Mood for Love and The Arch, staples and beloved films of Chinese Cinema. Wong Kar Wai's universally acclaimed 2000 work, In the Mood for Love, also stars Maggie Cheung, alongside Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Along with The Arch, a 1969 precursor to the Hong Kong New Wave style, both films chronicle the silent sorrow of women trapped by their propriety. These women, unlike Ruan Lingyu's characters, are not women saddled with poverty, or forced into prostitution, but like those women, they live as though they were born to bear their pain in silence. Their world, too, is a world of philandering men, one spent waiting to be given permission to experience life to the fullest.
Beauty and Sacrifice: Images of Women in Chinese Cinema runs through December 8, 2013 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.