Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Ambivalence of the Camera: The Representation of the Female Body and Identity in Chinese Silent Cinema of the 1930s
Funing Tang

Last modified: 2010-02-24


In the1930s Shanghai, Chinese cinema reaches its first golden age. Within and behind the silver screen are the feudalist residue, the imperialist invasion and the threat of the impending Second World War. The national crisis instills the contemporary filmmaking with the imperative and eager for revolution. And it is known in history as the leftist film movement The school of "mandarin ducks and butterflies" (the traditional romance) prevailing during the 1920s Chinese cinema is considered to be backward and impractical, and consequently replaced by the advanced, progressive surge of revolutionary and reformative thought, which is largely brought to life through the idea of women's liberation.

In the women's films that are made by men, the ambitious left-wing directors, women are represented as a mix of hope and despair; power and weakness. They are the mothers of the nation and willing to sacrifice themselves to fulfill its revolution. Without losing their dignity, they and their bodies not only compensate for the impotency of masculinity, but also consummate its patriarchal discourse.

The boundary between the hero and the victim becomes ambiguous in this cinema. The heroines emerge as victims of the national crisis and social corruption, yet their strength and determination to bear the suffering of a whole nation heroize them and transfigure their tragedies. They therefore transcend both their suffering and the films, and are remembered as many divine goddesses. The paradox and contradictions of their identities yield a great experiment in cinema. The camera's ambivalence derives from its tough position between the director and the actress, dreams and reality, and political ideology and its practice. From this ambivalence rises a meaningful, legendary discussion about the future of a nation in crisis. As such, the camera participates in the revolution of the nation and the building of its new future.

In my essay, I intend to resume the exploration of the "obsessions with women's stories" in this cinema from a somewhat different perspective; that is, through the gesture of the camera, where the director and the actress silently negotiate with each other. I will focus on three remarkable films of the time, Little Toys (Sun Yu, 1933), The Goddess (Wong Yonggang, 1934), New Women (Cai Chusheng, 1935). They were made by three of the most marvelous left-wing directors respectively, and all of them feature Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935), the legendary actress in Chinese silent film history.

I deem that the films offer essential and authentic interpretations of the ambivalent relationship between the patriarchic anticipation and the strong women under its oppression. These films are worthy of closer scrutiny than the examination merely from the outside, social-cultural backdrop; also, they manifest that the 1930s Shanghai cinema is capable of expressing both complexity and subtly, and ambivalence is absorbed into its unique qualities.


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