The public responded with decent enthusiasm at its initial release, possibly due to Ruan Lingyu’s popularity as an actress of her time as described in a newspaper article published around the time. During the Cultural Revolution, pressures to cleanse “polluting” elements of the bourgeoisie pushed aside general reverence of The Goddess. After Stanley Kwan’s revival of Ruan Lingyu’s story through the biopic Centre Stage (1991) starring Maggie Cheun as Ruan, widespread public interest in the classic films of Chinese cinema spread.
A never-named young woman (Ruan Lingyu) works as a prostitute to support herself and her baby son Shuiping. One night, fleeing from a police street sweep, she hides in the room of a gambler named Zhang (Zhang Zhizhi). When he suggests she stay the night with him for not betraying her to the police, she agrees. Later, however, he and two of his pals show up at her place. He makes it clear that he considers her his property. The woman attempts to flee, but Zhang tracks her down and frightens her by claiming to have sold Shuiping to punish her. Zhang returns the child, but he has made his point; she realizes she cannot protect her son from him and gives in. However, she manages to hide some of her earnings behind a loose brick in her wall.
When Shuiping is about 5 or 6, she enrolls him in a school. Soon, however, the other parents learn that Shuiping's mother is a prostitute, and complain to the school. The old principal visits the mother to find out if there is any truth to the accusations. She admits she is a prostitute, but upon seeing her genuine love of her child, the principal realizes that he cannot penalize Shuiping for his mother's unfortunate situation. However, he is unable to persuade the rest of the staff to be lenient, so he resigns and Shuiping is expelled.
The mother decides to take both of them away to somewhere where nobody knows them. She takes the brick out of her wall to get her money, but Zhang has already found her hiding place, and the money is gone. She confronts him and demands the money back, and when he tells her he has already spent the money, she hits him on the head with a bottle, killing him.
She is sentenced to 12 years in prison and Shuiping is sent to an orphanage. The school principal comes to visit her, and he tells her that he will take care of Shuiping. She asks him to tell him that his mother is dead, so he does not have to suffer the shame of having a mother like her. The movie ends with her imagining a bright future for Shuiping.Ruan Lingyu as Unnamed Woman, the Goddess
Zhang Zhizhi as the “Boss”/pimp Zhang
Keng Li as the Son, Shuiping
Although many early Shanghai produced films are attributed to have a heavy Hollywood and “western” influence, a study of the Lianhua Film Company’s filmography style by Rist provides evidence of otherwise. The Goddess is one of the remaining available films for analysis and exhibits some characteristics that are identified as a Lianhua Film style with its distinct camera movement and use of soft focus for particular scenes.
In The Goddess, the cinematographer Hong Weilie humanises and centers the protagonist through its unique close up scenes and angles that show both Ruan Lingyu’s facial expressions and the larger contextual setting. Additionally, Hong uses the characteristic Lianhua soft focus to represent strong emotions, specifically for the goddess. Whenever the camera focuses on Ruan Lingyu’s facial expressions, the soft focus is used to highlight and intensify the anger or pain written there. One of the notable scenes where this soft focus is used but in a distinct manner is towards the end of the film, when the goddess is behind bars. The bars are in focus but the figure of the goddess and her face become more blurred.
The film's title has several layers of meaning. On one level, it is a description of the nameless character played by Ruan Lingyu, who is equated with a protective goddess in the film. On another level, the title refers to her character's occupation, in that the Chinese term shennü, while primarily meaning "goddess," also was an old euphemism for a prostitute.
Wu’s directorial debut was received well back in 1934. Ruan Lingyu’s popularity definitely played a factor but also the screenplay for The Goddess tugged at emotional heartstrings for appeal. As mentioned previously, the Cultural Revolution impacted the acceptability of film content and styles. Interest in the “classic” film era for Chinese cinema returned after Maggie’s portrayal of Ruan Lingyu in the biopic Center Stage (1991).
A shallow reading of the film leaves a viewer believing The Goddess to be simply a film about the tragic life of a woman, her motherly duties, and her supposed shameful line of work. However, that is a naive understanding of the characters and plotline, erasing the historical context that Wu Yanggong wrote the screenplay in. Wu had an amount of social consciousness that he wanted to bring through his film regarding the reality of low-class sex work. In his 1934 short essay published before the film, Wu writes,
“When starting to write the script, I wanted to focus more on [the prostitutes’] actual life experiences. But my circumstances made this impossible. To hide this weakness, I shifted to maternal love while consigning prostitution to the background by depicting an illegal prostitute struggling between two lives for the sake of her child. I used an exploitative thug to propel the plot. I also put words of justice into the mouth of an upright school headmaster, letting him expose the social cause of prostitution. I did not offer a solution to the problem.”
He intentionally used motherhood as a way to shed more light on the conditions for prostitutes in Shanghai at the time. Nevertheless, he remained aware that his position and experience did not allow him to completely understand and portray reality accurately.
In Yiman Wang’s chapter called “The Goddess- Tracking the “Unknown Woman” from Hollywood through Shanghai to Hong Kong”, Wang notes the production of Rouge Tears by Wu Yonggang only a few short years after The Goddess. In the four-year gap between the original The Goddess and the self-made copy Rouge Tears did not reflect much change content wise. However, the processes and context of production for the two varied greatly. The narrative differences are summarized below.
Wu remade The Goddess in Rouge Tears with changes to the cast, the setting, and even a bit of the storyline. He shot Rouge Tears in the streets of Hong Kong and added essentially the equivalent of an epilogue to the original storyline. Instead of leaving off with simply the goddess imagining the future of her son, Wu inserts a time gap of 12 years to reach the release of the mother. The story ends instead with the mother watching her son’s engagement party through a window and leaving, satisfied with the outcome.
This reprise lacking the figure of Ruan Lingyu, the backdrop of Shanghai and the addition of another character resulted in a less successful release.
In Baskett’s review of The Goddess, he describes the newer released versions of the film. In 2003, a DVD was released of the film, made from 35mm prints provided by The China Film Archive. This version came with newly composed, unique piano score by Kevin Purrone, who also recorded the musical background.
The University of Hong Kong Press repackaged the DVD film in 2005, combining it with a biography of Ruan Lingyu called Ruan Lingyu: The Goddess of Shanghai. While the original film only used Chinese intertitles for the silent film, both 2003 and 2005 versions of the DVD have English intertitles available.
The Goddess is frequently referenced and analysed alongside various films based on style, motifs, and/or themes. The notable Shanghai film Street Angel is regularly connected with the The Goddess for its tone and material.
The film is also compared to the 1930s style of “fallen woman” films from the United States like Blonde Venus (1932), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), and Madame X (1929). The basis for these comparisons come from the melodramatic genre and the self-sacrificing mother, ready to do whatever it takes for her child.
In Wang’s chapter on The Goddess and Hollywood, Wang drew parallels between The Goddess and the American film Stella Dallas.