Ruan Lingyu was China’s first film actress to win extensive praise from the public. Her appearance marked the turning point when Chinese cinema rid itself of the fetters of the stylized performances typical of contemporary dramas and took to the road of realistic performance.
Ruan LingYu was discovered by director Bu Wancang from Star Film Company and starred in her first film Husband and Wife in Name (1926). The film was a mild success and she starred several films for Star in the next few years. Her career took off when she left Star and joined Da Zhonghua Baihe Film Company which merged with other companies and became Lianhua Film Company later. The first film she starred for Lianhua, A Dream in the Old Capital (1929) was a huge success and made her name. In Lianhua, Ruan Ling-Yu worked with a group of creative and exciting young directors and writers and starred in a dozen of critical acclaimed yet commercially successful films, including Wild Flowers by the Road (1930), Love and Duty (1931), Little Cuttie (1933), Goodbye Shanghai (1934), New Women (1934), The Goddess (1934). Her ability to understand and convey the director’s intention was universally praised by the directors she worked with.
During her short life, Ruan Lingyu created images of women of different social strata including widows and weak women who were maltreated to death under the feudal code of ethics; prostitutes exploited by despotic gentry and sons of rich families; naive, pure girls of humble birth; young women struggling for free marriage; advanced women who integrated themselves with the laboring people and fought for the interests of the nation; and old women, girl students, a women writer, a flower girl and a social beauty. Her unaffected, sensitive character portrayals contrast with the false, exaggerated performance that predominates in many films today.
Ruan was excellent in the role of a humiliated and hurt young mother in The Goddess. She fully expressed the young mother’s complicated psychological state in the presence of or behind people and her kindness, honesty, and spirit of resistance when facing her son. The film shines with an eternal artistic brilliance, which was evident when it was shown abroad in recent years. “After being treated by the director,” said a French movie critic, “the depressed beauty of Ruan Lingyu and her simple, unadorned performing skills radiate brilliance. The most brilliant part of her performance calls back to mind the works of the German film director Pabast G. W..
Ruan’s acting was so natural, accurate and graceful that, even after 70 years, her films still seem fresh. She was adept at conveying meaning through her whole body, thus overcoming the limitations of early silent films, unlike some performers today who talk and talk and express nothing through gesture and “body language.”
In 1982, when a Chinese Film Retrospective was held in Italy, audiences were amazed at Ruan’s talent, especially in the film Goddess. They called Ruan “China’s Greta Garbo.”