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Beauty and Sacrifice: Images of Women in Chinese Cinema

November 8, 2013 - December 8, 2013


As a companion series to the exhibition Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting, we present a small selection of Chinese films that portray women, their desires, and their sacrifices. Frames from Cecile Tang Shu Shuen’s rare The Arch (1969), with its portrait of a seventeenth-century widow spinning wool, reading books, and teaching children, could double as paintings from the exhibition, while the sensual 35mm textures and hues of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) form compositions as timeless as any in ink or silk. Both offer us protagonists separated by centuries, yet connected by a propriety that leaves them unable to express themselves or their needs.

Many of the films feature one of prewar Chinese cinema’s greatest performers, the legendary Ruan Lingyu, who tragically committed suicide at the age of twenty-four. Her roles in The Goddess (1934) and New Women (1935) defined the “new woman” of urban China. Ruan’s films offered up images of women fighting against their submissive role and against the straitjacket of sexuality forced upon them by men. “Only a slave sells her body!” one of her characters defiantly cries. Like the lead characters of The Arch and In the Mood for Love, Ruan’s heroines are figures of propriety, able to keep their virtue even when surrounded by vice. They are defined not by an unexpressed love for a man, however, but by love for their children.

Fittingly for this series, Stanley Kwan’s innovative modernist biography of Ruan Lingyu, 1992’s Center Stage, presents a “meta-portrait” not only of the actress, but of all the ways in which images of women can be constructed, memorialized, and deconstructed.

Jason Sanders, Film Notes Writer

Friday, November 8, 2013
7:00 p.m. The Goddess
Wu Yonggang (China, 1934). Imported Print! Judith Rosenberg on piano. Ruan Lingyu delivers one of her most luminous performances as a mother forced into prostitution in this classic of the Golden Age of Shanghai cinema. Could make even jaded denizens of pre-Code Hollywood blush. (82 mins)

Saturday, November 9, 2013
6:30 p.m. New Women
Cai Chusheng (China, 1935). Imported Print! A strong-willed teacher and writer (Ruan Lingyu) is driven to despair by gossip and lecherous men in this intriguing, hard-hitting melodrama given further power by Ruan’s own post-filming suicide. (104 mins)

Friday, November 29, 2013
7:00 p.m. Center Stage
Stanley Kwan (Hong Kong, 1992). Imported Print! Maggie Cheung stars in Stanley Kwan’s modernist version of the biopic, chronicling the life and tragic early death of the Chinese film star Ruan Lingyu. “A masterpiece . . . the greatest Hong Kong film I've seen” (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader). (124 mins)

Saturday, November 30, 2013
6:30 p.m. In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong, 2000). Imported Print! Acknowledged as the most acclaimed film of the twenty-first century, Wong Kar-wai’s romantic masterpiece ostensibly tracks the relationship between two neighbors (Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai) in early 1960s Hong Kong. “Has a strong claim to being the best-looking film you’ll ever see”(Empire). (98 mins)

Sunday, December 8, 2013
3:00 p.m. The Arch
Cecile Tang Shu Shuen (Hong Kong/U.S., 1969). A Ming dynasty widow, beloved for her grace and kindness, becomes tempted by a visiting soldier in this investigation of propriety, tradition, and repression. Photographed by Satyajit Ray’s main cinematographer and edited by Les Blank, this early precursor of the Hong Kong New Wave was praised as “a film of poetic beauty” by Anaïs Nin. (95 mins)

Series curated by Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby. With thanks to Sun Xianghui and Zhao Jing, China Film Archive; Noah Cowan and Samuel La France, TIFF Cinematheque; and Weihong Bao, East Asian Languages and Cultures, UC Berkeley.