Immoral Woman

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Appeared in different form as “Interview with an Angel”
in The Gettysburg Review






The Entrance of Heaven



I was at the Museum of the Moving Image to review a festival of the films of the great silent actress, Ruan Lingyu, who committed suicide at the age of 26 in 1935. This much you must believe. This much you can look up.

Ruan’s father died when she was six. In her early teens she was seduced by Zhang Daming, the scion of the wealthy family who employed her mother as a maid. At sixteen Ruan broke away from Zhang to begin her career. Over the next eleven years she starred in twenty-one films. But Zhang orchestrated a campaign to discredit her, and she was branded an “immoral woman” — a damning indictment in China in the 1930’s. At the zenith of her fame, Ruan Lingyu killed herself. Her last words were, “Gossips are frightening.”

This much you can look up in the festival program, though more detailed
sources are available only in Chinese and French. If I seem overly concerned that you believe the beginning of my story, that is because I am reasonably sure you will not believe the rest of it.

During the credits of the first film, Little Toys, a young Asian woman in a tight cheongsam of black and gold silk brocade soundlessly took the vacant seat next to me. She was wearing dark glasses with large round lenses that were flat rather than convex. She did not remove them.

She sat quite still throughout Little Toys, except that toward the ending, when Ruan’s character was given a cigarette by an obese and leering actor, the woman produced a very long ivory cigarette holder and lit a cigarette that had no odor whatsoever. The only smell was one I have since identified as orange blossom water. I supposed that a draft was blowing the smoke in another direction.

The woman beside me did not rise during the intermission. I joined the crowd in the lobby, where I smelled plenty of cigarette smoke.

I chanced to look at the woman ten minutes into the second film, The Goddess. Her lips were moving.

I watched the screen, and then the woman in the seat next to me. Whenever Ruan Lingyu spoke, the woman’s lips moved silently; whenever fear or rage showed in Ruan’s eyes, I saw similar expressions cross the face of the woman whose cigarettes did not smell.

She bore an uncanny resemblance to Ruan Lingyu. It wasn’t simply that she was about the same age as the actress on the screen, or that the shape of her face, like Ruan’s, was round and innocent while her features were cool and knowing; no, the two were closer than that. The face of the woman next to me was luminous, a chiaroscuro in the artificial night of the theatre, as if projected by light thrown through translucent film. I was transfixed. I must confess that I am even now quite unable to relate what The Goddess was about.




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