I do not much care for Stanley Kwan’s Yuen Ling-yuk (1992), which starred Maggie Cheung as legendary Chinese film star Ruan Ling-yu, who committed suicide at age 24, but now that I have finally seen Ruan in something I might give Kwan’s film another shot. Ruan gives an intense performance, as a young woman in Shanghai who resorts to prostitution to provide for her son, in Wu Yonggang’s involving, mildly progressive silent melodrama Shen nu.
But let it not be said that Wu’s film is otherwise unnoteworthy. The opening shot on a dark street brilliantly conjures the alienating atmosphere of a modern urban environment, while a later shot perfectly captures the woman’s sense of being at the mercy of subjugating forces. In the foreground, gigantic, is the inverted V formed by the standing legs of the threatening, posturing hoodlum who has declared the woman his “property.” Through their opening we see the woman herself in the background, as if trapped in a vise. To get this woman to do his bidding, at one point he pretends to have sold her son. This resident rapist keeps taking the money she earns selling her body; he keeps finding around her tenement apartment all her hiding places.
The woman has enrolled her son in a school, but gossip by parents of other pupils about how she earns a living pressures the principal to investigate. She impassionedly states her dream for her son’s better life, winning over the principal; but this humane individual fails to convince the other schoolboard members, who fear antagonizing the objecting parents. The principal resigns. When the woman is incarcerated for killing the hoodlum, the principal adopts her son with the aim of educating him. In that way, the woman realizes her most heartfelt dream.
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