Sunday, 22 December 2013

Shen Nu (1934)

Shen Nu
”Shen Nu” is a touching story full of heartbreak about a prostitute who tries to raise her son as a good boy although she herself is under the thumb of a mean pimp.

This new entry on the “1001…” list is an early Chinese film. It is three year earlier than “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” from 1937 and is hence the oldest Chinese film on the list. Although sound film technology was out and about at the time “Shen Nu” was made it is a silent film with intertitles and all. Considering how poor the sound quality was on “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” I think that was a wise choice. In fact technically “Sheng Nu” is far superior to “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” and not just through the restoration process. The acting and direction is also much sharper and the story is clear cut. No need to be Chinese to get this one. Partly this may be ascribed to the fact that it is a Shanghai made film. In the thirties Shanghai was an international city practically cut off from the rest of China and governed as a European colony, almost like Hong Kong. It was the entertainment and economic center of the east and it is no wonder that this would be reflected in the movies as well.

I lived in Shanghai for half a year and although the Chinese authorities tried to stamp out all this western decadence after 1949 there are still glimpses of it today. In the film we see the neon lights of the city and although the volume has been turned up since I can still recognize Nanjing Dong Lu.

Prostitution is a big no-no in China today. In fact anything hinting at sex is sanitized from the public space. Not so in 1930’ies Shanghai. Prostitution was a byword for Shanghai and Western films has clearly associated Shanghai with prostitutes. Shanghai Lily in “Footlight Parade” or Marlene Dietrich in “Shanghai Express” just to mention two.

In “Shen Nu” there is no glamour to the profession. In fact “Sheng Nu” takes a very modern view on the subject, which may be part of the reason why it works so well today. Ruan Lingyu plays an unnamed prostitute (henceforth called “the woman”), who works as a prostitute to survive. She has no love for her job, but seems to have no other means to earn a living by. Of course it helps her that she is a beautiful woman, but there is something very asexual to her demeanor as she is working the streets. She looks withdrawn.

This changes completely when she is home. At her tiny apartment she has a little boy, hardly half a year old in the beginning of the film. When she is with him her face lightens up and she is transformed to a completely different woman. Clearly he is the solace in her life and the effect on the viewer is immediate. Who cannot love this woman? I cannot recall any other silent movie that manages to convey motherly love as beautiful and sincere as “Sheng Nu”. Ruan Lingyu is also by far the best actor of the film.

Then an early disaster strikes. During a police raid the woman hides out in what turns out to be the den of an unnamed gambler (Zhang Zhizhi). As payment for hiding her from the police he sets himself up as her pimp. Not that we really see him helping her in any way, but he is always there to take her money and invade her home with his goons. When she tries to escape he kidnaps her son to drive home his power over her and she gets the message. From then on she lives in bondage, effectually as his possession. The parallel to modern trafficking in women is striking. A modern take on the issue can be found in Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilja 4-ever”.

The story jumps 5 or 6 years and her son has become the cutest little boy. The woman, intent on raising him to become a good boy has been hiding money from her pimp and sends him to school. But it is soon common knowledge among children and parents that the boy’s mother’s occupation is not what you would call conventional. Parents and children alike act as the morally superior usually do and wants her and her son kicked out of the school. My personal guess is that they consider her the lowest creature and by allowing her and her son into the school they are staining the rest of them. It is always good to have a common enemy to shit on. Again this is not an outdated idea at all. Plenty of modern equivalents to that.

What is apparent to us, the viewers, is how unfair that is. The woman has no other choice, the boy is really the sweetest thing and the woman is sacrificing everything for him and on top of it all she has to live with that dirty pig. The principal of the school learns the truth. Not the simple truth that the school board and the parents are looking for; the fact that she is a prostitute, but the truth that we know. When he opens the door to her apartment and look around we get this really long scene where we feel that he gets to see all that we see. He sees the unfairness in her situation, he sees her love for her son and he sees an unspoiled boy worth fighting for. Who can be mean against innocence? The boy has hurt no-one and it is his mother who made him an adorable boy despite her disadvantageous position.

The principal is swayed by her, but not the school board so the boy has to leave school. Coincidentally this is also the point where the pimp finds her hidden stash of money and spends it on gambling. The woman is naturally desperate over her misfortune and when she learns that the money is truly gone she strikes the pimp dead. You might think that that would solve her problems, but no. The law is unmoved by a prostitute kept in bondage by an evil pimp and sentence her to 12 years of prison for murder. Again, typical to punish the victim rather that the bandit in prostitution cases.

All is not lost however. Instead of going to an orphanage the boy will be raised and educated personally by the principal while his mother rots in jail. Happy end.

This is a real tearjerker. It is effective because Ruan Lingyu is as good an actor as she is and because the problem is a very modern one as well. No happy prostitutes here. It is a cruel and dangerous trade and she is scorned by everybody and yet this is also heartwarming. The long takes with her and the boy are perfectly natural and perfect bliss. It is the outside world who crushes them in the end and mother and son are the innocent victims.

This is global humanism in a Chinese disguise. I can only recommend it, although I have probably totally spoiled it by now.


  1. This one is pretty melodramatic, but that's not too uncommon when it comes to silent films. Eventually, you'll get to The Actress, which is an unusual (and pretty good) biopic of Ruan Lingyu. It might be worth revisiting this film when you get there.

    I admit that I was a lot more interested in this film having seen The Actress and I appreciated Shen Nu more because I knew something about her.

    1. 1992 is a long away ahead for me, but I might cheat and see it. She killed herself, no? She was amazing in this film.

  2. I echo what Steve said about the other film on the list. It's a combination documentary/re-creation of that actress' career. When The Goddess was added to the list I was interested in it because I had already seen The Actress and this was the first film of hers to be on the list.

    Like you, I thought The Goddess did a good job of showing just how miserable a life sex workers have because of both social condemnation and harsh laws. And the fact that it was made in the 1930s and covered this topic impressed me quite a bit.

    1. The entire issue on prostitution and their lot had a lot more modern ring to it that typical for the period. We often get this happy whore image thrown at us, but reality was very different. I applaud the film for that.

  3. I really enjoyed your review. I'm looking forward to seeing this one. I wonder if any comparisons could be made to the Mizoguchi films? They sound a bit similar.

    1. Uh, I am sorry if I spoiled it for you then. I basically gave away the entire story.
      I think it is quite different from Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi is very Japanese and his films are rooted in traditional Japan. Shen Nu is far more Western in style. Replace the actors and this could have been American or German. It is also concerned with an issue that is far more general than the more intricate films of Mizoguchi.