AT precisely 15 minutes and 46 seconds into "The Goddess," Ruan Lingyu gives one of the most beautifully enigmatic expressions in film history, an explosion of pathos that brings color to the two-tone screen and makes the silent film ring out loud. Ruan's nameless character shades it with every known emotion, and perhaps some as yet unknown, with especially heavy doses of relief and resignation.
This reaction shot is prompted by her character's acquiescence to the fact that she will be the wife of the lout played by Zhang Zhizhi who does little other than gamble Ruan's money away and abuse her.
One can see the horror in her face; the realization of cosmic irony that no matter how much she runs away from her job as a prostitute, it will always follow her; and the acceptance that it's what she deserves, as she seems to feel a reluctance to do anything but punish herself for her life's bad decisions.
I could continue, but please do see it for yourself. Many modern audiences feel that silent films are somehow less subtle and emotionally obtuse compared with modern films. One look at this could really change some minds.
The rest of "The Goddess" provides other treasures as well, with many of them coming from the beautiful Ruan. The last film reviewed in this column, another classic of the 1930s, "Street Angel," starred Yuan Muzhi as a girl who maintained her vitality and pluck despite harsh circumstances.
Ruan's performance is somehow even more remarkable, as she allows the bleakness of her existence to sink in despite her natural, charming charisma. Without taking away anything from Yuan, who is able to project her beauty in the grimy world of 1930s Shanghai, Ruan's ability to continuously convey the premature weight of a dire life is only matched in a similar performance by Charlize Theron 70 years later in "Monster."
Parallels to that movie are many, including the protagonist's work as a prostitute and her desire to escape it; her motherly instincts despite her dirty urban environment; and a murderous plot. Sister movies, made 70 years and on the other side of the globe: you got to love cinema.