An unnamed single woman (Ruan Lingyu) has no other choice but to work as a prostitute to support her infant son (Li Keng). She absolutely adores her son and wants him to have a more opportunities to have a better life than she did. One night, while walking the streets, she ends up taking shelter with a big gambler (Zhang Zhizhi), the gambler decides that she is officially his property. She doesn’t like him and tries to get away from him, but he finds her again. He’s so intimidating that she has no other choice but to do what he says.
A few years pass and she’s still under the gambler’s control, but she continues working as a prostitute to be able to send her son to a good school. However, the parents of her son’s classmates are aware of what her profession is and her son is shunned by his classmates. There’s such a commotion about her that her principal has to come see her to find out whether or not the rumors are true. If they were, he’s have to expel her son. But after meeting her and seeing how sincerely she cares for her son, he doesn’t have the heart to do anything. But then the principal is forced to resign and her son is expelled anyway.
She realizes that if she wants to give her son a better life, her only choice is to move someplace where nobody knows them. She’s been hiding money away, but when she goes to get it, she realizes the gambler has taken it. She demands her money back and he refuses, so she hits him over the head with a bottle, killing him. She’s sentenced to 12 years in prison and her son is headed for an orphanage. When the son’s former principal reads about what happened, she goes to see her and offers to raise her son and give him a good education.
Although the silent film industry in America had come to a complete stop before 1934, aside from Chaplin, they were still being produced in China because so few theaters could afford to upgrade to sound technology and because so many dialects are spoken in China. The Goddess is one of the most influential films made in China and stars the wonderful Ruan Lingyu, who was considered to be China’s answer to Greta Garbo. Her performance was beautiful, heartfelt, and sensitive. The story may be melodramatic, but Ruan’s performance elevates it above ordinary melodrama. I can think of several American films from around this era that have a similar premise of a fallen woman making a major sacrifice for her child, but The Goddess is better than any of them.
If you’ve never seen The Goddess, it’s well worth seeing just for a chance to see Ruan Lingyu in action. She was a major star in China who committed suicide at the age of 24. Only 8 of her movies are known to survive and The Goddess is a fine example of what a talent she was.