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

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Voiceless Smiles and the Limits of Gesture in Shanghai Silent Film
Menghsin Cindy Horng

Last modified: 2010-05-12


The smile, an oscular gesture that can only be registered through ocular means, is integral to the vocabulary of scopophilic, eroticized gestures befitting silent film in particular. Early film critics’ writings on cinematic faces, from which the smile originates, reveal a range of responses including desire, suspicion (often expressed in gendered terms) and intense spiritualism. As a regime of photogenicity (photogénie), defined primarily by portraiture, came to disrupt the integrity of the complete body in cinematic framing and distinguish the screen from the stage actor, the eyes often received greater attention than lips as a site of maximum expressive potential, perhaps as a refraction of the spectatorial gaze. What were the consequences of this displaced emphasis on visuality in the development of cinematic gestural techniques? In what ways does discursive investment in the gaze serve to produce aesthetic silences in the medium before its silence was relativized by the advent of sound?

This paper addresses some of these questions through the gestural vocabulary of Chinese silent film actress Ruan Ling-yu, who starred as the titular prostitute in The Goddess (Shennü, 1934). I argue that Ruan’s recurrent gestures of nervous, self-conscious, and meaningful smiles exposed the uneasy tension between the female characters she portrayed in her “socially progressive” films and the type of stardom enabled by cinema. Additionally, her performances thematized the precarious destiny of silent film, or in this case, Chinese national film, which was threatened by a sense of its own obsolescence amidst the global conversion to sound and the immediate threat of foreign incursions. Ultimately, Ruan’s numerous smiles in The Goddess (which find resonance in a number of other Shanghai silent films) expose the limitations of possibilities promised to the modern, urban women that her film roles present and problematize. This tense and ultimately unfulfilled relationship is partially what drove Ruan to suicide in 1935, at the height of her career. Lu Xun, a prominent intellectual and contemporary literary figure, wrote that the power of words, materialized in the form of the tabloid press, is what killed her, pointing obliquely to Ruan’s inability to cross the threshold from smiling to speaking lips, or from narrative figuration to textual, social agency. Yet it could further be argued that Ruan’s performances unmasked the complicity of elite males (a group which included Lu Xun) in delegitimizing female avenues to material and social success, even as they imposed nationalist imperatives upon both the body of the woman and the cinematic medium.

I will consider writings of intellectuals writing in Chinese-language film serials and other international journals against close readings of Ruan’s own performative modes. My emphasis on the global circulation and simultaneity of ideas aims to highlight the transnational mobility not just of film as a medium, but also of the accompanying apparatuses that shaped film’s global manifestations and reception. This approach benefits from and contributes to ongoing work on how film operates as a form of vernacular modernism with an intermediary status, which resists insertion into master narratives of the nation, yet remains inaccessible to a silent remainder, crowded just below the threshold of cinematic representation.

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