The major revelation among many in the Four Star Theater's captivating series, "Electric Shadows: China Film Classics From Before the Revolution," is the exquisite, ill-fated actress Ruan Ling-Yu, who was seen last week in the Griffith-like silent "The Goddess."
"New Woman" (1935), screening Saturday and Sunday, confirms Ruan's status as the equal of Gish in the silent cinema. At heart a Victorian melodrama for all its bold feminist sentiments, sleek Art Deco settings and striking visuals, it casts Ruan, who has a screen presence as intense as that of Jeanne Eagels, as a struggling, independent-minded writer-schoolteacher destroyed in the press by her hypocritical principal when she resists his advances.
Written by Chou Ta-Ming and directed by Tsai Chu-Sheng, "New Woman"--a unique instance of art imitating life and life in turn imitating art--was inspired by the 1934 suicide of actress Ai Hsiao: The same kind of scandal sheets that drive Ruan's heroine to take her own life caused Ruan to do the same. In a life and death of distinct parallels with Marilyn Monroe's, Ruan Ling-Yu, who had made 29 films, killed herself at the age of 26.
The other key discovery is Ma Xuei Wei-Bung's bizarre, one-of-a kind "The Midnight Song" (1937), screening Tuesday and Wednesday. An extravagant, overwrought yet always fascinating feat of the imagination, it was an immense hit in its day, the sort of film that would now attract a cult following. Clearly inspired by "The Phantom of the Opera," it features a turn-of-the-century musical comedy star (Chin Shan), who is also a revolutionary, disfigured by a powerful landlord who is his rival for the love of an heiress (Hu Ping), who is driven mad by the news of Chin's death. Actually, Chin lives on, hiding in an old abandoned theater, comforting his Ophelia by his nightly songs. The film's complicated story is set in motion by the arrival of a traveling theatrical company which takes over the theater.