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BFI London: Why It's Time for Shanghai Goddess Ruan Lingyu to Grace the Silver Screen Again

13/10/2014 13:21 BST | Updated 10/12/2014 10:59 GMT

When I look upon the beautiful face of Chinese silent film actress Ruan Lingyu I observe so many things - beauty, history, reverence and tragedy all woven into one rich tapestry.

If Helen of Troy had a face that could launch a thousands ships then I can only imagine Ruan would launch a thousand fleets.

Certainly, following her untimely suicide at the age of 26 in 1935, it was said the whole of Shanghai (her home city) wept and several hundred thousand mourners lined the road to watch her funeral procession.

That is why I am so delighted and proud that the KT Wong Foundation in association with the China Film Archive is bringing a digitally re-mastered version of one of Ruan Lingyu's masterpieces, The Goddess, to the British Film Institute (BFI) Film Festival in London next month.

When people think of pioneering cinema they typically think of America as the driving force behind film.

Few people realise that Chinese cinema began in 1895 and is considered by many, including the French and the Italians, as one of the most exciting and original forms of cinema in existence.

The Goddess was written and directed by Chinese film legend Wu Yong Gang who continued to make groundbreaking films until 1982.

Back then, Chinese filmmakers were technically and artistically comparable to the great European masters of the same period, such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).

The story of The Goddess highlights the challenges faced by an impoverished single mother and prostitute struggling to put her son through school. The female lead, whose name we never learn, suffers a series of escalating hardships and humiliations at the hands of punishing authority figures.

So what was it about Ruan Lingyu the actress (regarded as the Chinese Greta Garbo) that captured the imagination of Chinese cinema in the 1930s so powerfully?

To my mind, her on-screen struggles were emblematic of the issues faced by women during this period of history with its many social upheavals.

During the 1930's women were still being forced into arranged marriages and the infamous practice of foot binding was still going on in more rural areas of China despite being outlawed in 1911. But women were also emerging from centuries of patriarchal feudalism and enslavement.

To better understand the position of Chinese women in the thirties look a little further back in history. During the nineteenth century they were every bit as disempowered as their Western sisters.

Indeed, Chinese women were very much the inferior gender. They were excluded from social and political life, not assigned property or inheritance rights and possessed no independent sources of income. They were forced to obey their fathers before marriage, their husbands after.

The Chinese Communist Party, who were behind a great civil revolution forward in the 1920s, believed in female equality. But it took time for these ideals to filter through.

It wasn't until the mid twentieth century that Chinese women were finally mobilised and worked in industry and agriculture. Arranged marriage was outlawed and women were given property and inheritance rights.

Ruan's role in The Goddess is deeply humanistic -the audience is not asked to pass judgment on her reckless existence, struggling to make ends meet. It is a profoundly moving drama, all the more poignant by the fact its star took her life, overdosing on sleeping pills, a year after the film's release.

Ruan was driven to the brink by the feeling that she was being persecuted - much like the women she played in films. Her relationships with men had long been dramatic and abusive.

A pending divorce and slanderous newspaper stories caused her a great deal more mental anguish. Feeling her reputation was in tatters, her death was perhaps a final act of defiance and the only way she felt her voice would actually be heard.

But all was not lost. In 2014, the Chinese Film Authority (CFA) successfully completed a digital restoration of The Goddess, recognising it as one of the best movies from the silent film era.

The KT Wong Foundation collaborated on this historic project, commissioning a magical new score for the film by one of China's top composers, Zou Ye.

The Foundation also set about showcasing this jewel of Chinese cinema all over the world.

Earlier this year it was presented at the Beijing International Film Festival with a live score performed by the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra -the first time a Chinese film had ever been shown to live music!

The Goddess then travelled to the 2014 Shanghai International Film Festival, and the prestigious Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. Next week, it opens at London's South Bank Centre, a much-anticipated part of the BFI Film Festival.

This screening of The Goddess will be accompanied live by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Chalmers. Cinema lovers and culture addicts are in for a real treat.

My hope is that British audiences find as much emotional resonance in the universal themes of the narrative as their Eastern counterparts. Certainly, they will enjoy the unique opportunity to see a rare Chinese masterpiece; and the ghost of a Shanghai Goddess brought back to life.

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