Ruan Lingyu's life is hard to separate from her films. The stories in many of her films seem to parallel her life, as if she was living in her films. An emblem of 1930s Shanghai and the golden age of Chinese cinema in the pre-war years, she was glorious, yet tragic; sensual, yet proper; humble, yet elegant.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the actress's birthday, the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) will present "The Bitter Tears of Ruan Lingyu" from June 5 to July 4 in collaboration with the China Film Archive and the Taipei Film Festival. Nine films will be screened at the Cinema of the HKFA, with eight starring Ruan. These are: Romantic comedy "A Spray of Plum Blossoms"; "Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood", noted for Ruan's refined performance; "Homecoming", the first feature directed and scripted by Zhu Shilin; melodrama "Goodbye, Shanghai"; "New Women", which received Ruan's full devotion; her memorable films "The Little Toys" and "The Goddess"; and her last work "Civil Wind". The director's cut of "Center Stage", directed by Stanley Kwan and starring Maggie Cheung, will be screened to review Ruan's life and films.
To enhance understanding of Ruan and her films, veteran researcher and writer Law Kar, film scholar Shu Kei and renowned Taiwanese film scholar Peggy Chiao will discuss her tragic life and screen roles in a seminar, "The Life and Drama of Ruan Lingyu", which will be held at 5pm on June 6 (Sunday) at the Cinema of the HKFA. The seminar will be conducted in Cantonese and Putonghua. Admission is free.
Ruan was born in 1910 in Shanghai. She applied to the Mingxing Film Company at the age of 15 and became an actress, shooting to stardom after a few years of playing minor roles. Her career reached a peak after she joined United Photoplay Service in 1930 and had the chance to work with directors like Fei Mu, Richard Poh, Sun Yu, Wu Yonggang, Cai Chusheng and Zhu Shilin. Then, at the age of 25 in 1935, she took her own life.
"A Spray of Plum Blossoms" (1931) is a rare surviving example of Ruan as comedienne. The film is an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona", taking on the comedic tone of the original but animating the play on friendship, loyalty and love within the 1930s context of national urgency. Ruan plays the role of Julia and gets to cross dress as a soldier. An interesting Chinese take on the Bard's theme of love's foolishness.
In "Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood" (1931), Ruan evolves from a naive country girl to a woman who has to endure blow after devastating blow of life's cruelty. Melodrama veteran Richard Poh, who doubles as director and writer, provides compelling backdrops for the story, from the wide-open landscape where cattle graze to the delicate beauty of villages south of the Yangtze, making the shedding of peach blossom-shaped tears all the more heart-wrenching.
In "Homecoming" (1934), Ruan plays a woman whose husband, thinking she has died, marries overseas. When he returns to China, he finds that Ruan is still alive. Ruan's tender, dignified interpretation gives the character nobility. A superbly written and directed drama by Zhu Shilin, the film captures the complexities of the time in ways that still resonate today. A post-screening talk, conducted in Cantonese, with film critics Lawrence Lau and Kiki Fung will be held on June 20.
"Goodbye, Shanghai" (1934) is the story of a young teacher who flees the war to the city, only to be lured into a web of deceit, decadence and heartlessness. The declaration made by the title is thus directed towards the city as well as against the culture. The only existing of print of the film is greatly damaged and can only be shown in fragmented fashion.
Director Cai Chusheng and fellow actor Zheng Junli remember that Ruan was exceptionally devoted to her role in "New Women" (1934). The heroine in the film is a writer and single mother in determined pursuit of love and career but finds herself struggling to survive a culture of chauvinism, feudal morality and thirst for tabloid gossip. It's not difficult to imagine Ruan's identification with the role. The writer's plight easily evokes that of the actress who plays her. The dying writer's hysterical scream is a proclamation that suicide is not an act of surrender but a cry of the times.
In "The Little Toys" (1933), Ruan is a village woman who exudes a spontaneous sensuality and playful seductiveness. The lyrical images serve to celebrate her feminine charm as well as Sun Yu's own optimism about human nature. A post-screening talk, conducted in Cantonese, with the Programmer of the HKFA, Sam Ho, and Film Researcher Elbe Lau will be held on June 20.
In "The Goddess" (1934), the duality of nobility and sordidness of this famous role epitomises Ruan's complexity as an actress and as a woman. The film tells the tale of a single mother who, in order to raise her son, swings between lives of indignity and decency in a city whose moral ambiguity is just as puzzling. Director and playwright Wu Yonggang's simplistic camerawork melts naturalism into poetry. A post-screening talk, conducted in Cantonese, with film critics Grace Mak and Kiki Fung will be held on June 13.
Ruan in "Civil Wind" (1935) plays the elder of two sisters, a sensible, hard-working embodiment of traditional values, the polar opposite of the younger sister, a selfish youngster who indulges in the fast life (played by the exuberant Lili Li). Ruan took her own life during filmmaking, the irony of her succumbing to despair while playing a woman of stoicism and strength summarises the struggles of her generation.
Starring Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Carina Lau, "Center Stage" (1992), shown in a director's cut, is a reference film of this programme. A richly researched semi-documentary featuring interviews with veterans of the Shanghai film industry, the film establishes an intriguing connection between Cheung and Ruan. Cheung turned in a memorable performance, lending credence to the claim that she may well be the goddess of her time.
The eight films starring Ruan Lingyu are silent films with live music accompaniment and Chinese intertitles. English intertitles are also available for "A Spray of Plum Blossoms", "Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood", "The Little Toys" and "The Goddess". "Center Stage" screens in Mandarin and Cantonese with Chinese and English subtitles.
Tickets priced at $30 for the screenings are available at all URBTIX outlets. Half-price concessionary tickets are available for senior citizens aged 60 and above, people with disabilities, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients. Detailed programme information can be obtained in the "ProFolio 52" distributed at all performing venues of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Reservations can be made by phone on 2734 9009, or on the Internet at www.urbtix.hk. For enquiries, please call 2739 2139 / 2734 2900 or browse the websites: www.filmarchive.gov.hk / www.lcsd.gov.hk/fp.
Ends/Thursday, May 20, 2010
A film still of "Goodbye, Shanghai" (1934).
A film still of "The Goddess" (1934).
A film still of "Civil Wind" (1935).