#AuthorInterview with Patrick Galvan, author of Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career
Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott is talking with Patrick Galvan, author of Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career.
FQ: What started your interest in Chinese film? In particular, the silent film era?
GALVAN: I must confess that while I’ve been a movie fan for as long as I can remember, Chinese cinema was something of a blind spot until my late 20s. I’d seen a handful of movies from that part of the world, but it wasn’t of particular interest to me. That changed, fittingly enough, with the actress my book is about: Ruan Lingyu. In 2018, I saw Wu Yonggang’s 1934 masterpiece The Goddess, where Ruan plays a single mother who resorts to prostitution in order to raise her son. From the moment she appeared on screen, I was enamored: with her beauty and then with her incredibly natural, gut-wrenching performance. She was one of those rare talents who made great acting look easy, and I was immediately interested in her.
A basic internet search informed me Ruan Lingyu was one of China’s major stars of the 1920s-30s and that she died—by her own hand—at the age of twenty-four. Caught in one of those moments where moviegoers briefly forget that famous people have struggles and complications, I wondered why this woman who seemingly had everything—talent, fame, success—was so unhappy with her life that she ended it. Initially wanting only to answer this question for myself, I started researching her, and in doing so inevitably learned about her industry, her colleagues, and the times in which she lived.
I’ve always loved silent movies because of their purely visual nature. And in the case of Chinese silent film, most of the surviving ones came when filmmakers took notes from Hollywood regarding narrative, montage, and cinematography. You had directors like the internationally trained Sun Yu putting together technically intricate films that addressed social issues. That’s another fascinating element to early Chinese movies. Many were shot amid great sociopolitical upheaval and thus offer a glimpse into what was happening at the time.
FQ: And of course, your interest in Japanese film? Are you also drawn to the silent era, or are you more interested in more modern Japanese films?
GALVAN: I’ve been a fan of Japanese cinema considerably longer—since I saw Okawara Takao’s Godzilla 2000 as a nine-year-old. I think part of what captivated me about Godzilla, besides my affinity for monsters, was that it was set in another country. I grew up in a small town in the American Midwest (not much Asian culture), and in Godzilla movies the people looked different, the architecture looked different, the language was different. In high school, I learned the director of many early Godzilla films, Honda Ishiro, was close friends with Kurosawa Akira, renowned as one of the greatest directors of all time. I saw and was stunned by Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and from there became obsessed with Japanese cinema.
I love the entire historical spectrum of Japanese cinema. Admittedly my favorite decades are the 1930s and the ‘50s-70s, but even lesser eras have interesting things going on. Presently, my favorite film of 2023—from any country—is one I recently saw in Tokyo: Konaka Kazuya’s Single8, about high school students inspired to make a sci-fi flick after seeing Star Wars (1977). A terrific movie about moviemaking; I hope it receives the international attention it deserves.
FQ: Have you visited Shanghai and other venues highlighted in this biography? If so, how did that travel affect your perspective?
GALVAN: This biography was essentially a byproduct of the covid-19 pandemic. I’d been collecting information about Ruan Lingyu since 2018—with no intention of doing anything grand-scale. But in the midst of the lockdowns, a book seemed a productive way to utilize my extra time; plus it seemed wasteful to continue holding onto my larger findings. International travel was riskier and more restricted then, so I didn’t visit China as part of my research.
FQ: Do you identify with any particular personage in the Chinese film world described in your book?
GALVAN: In my own very small way. I’ve never directed movies professionally, but I’ve made a few short films (indie projects in the most literal sense: with practically no money and done entirely with friends) wherein we put together something with little to no resources. In the burgeoning days of Chinese film history (late 1900s-10s), most movies were shot by entrepreneurs who’d rent equipment, transform office space into stages, and cast family members. I also spent some time on a professional film set in 2010 and through that observed the struggles that go into moviemaking.
FQ: Your book stresses women’s rights and feelings; if you could tell potential readers one thing about women’s rights in Ruan Lingyu’s time, what would it be?
GALVAN: The best way to answer this is to mention that societal mistreatment of women in China is dramatized in one of Ruan Lingyu’s surviving movies. In Cai Chusheng’s New Woman (1935), her aristocrat heroine gives up the bourgeoisie to marry a man who later abandons her. From there, she struggles to lead a successful life independent of men but is constantly used and tormented by them. She writes a novel, which a publisher rejects until discovering the author’s an attractive woman, and is sexually pursued by a man who goes above and beyond to force her into desperation.
FQ: I was amazed at the reaction to Ruan Lingyu’s death, and the women who committed suicide. Why was the reaction so intense?
GALVAN: Although we’re entering an age where the movie star’s becoming less important to the masses (at least in the United States), in Ruan’s day obsession with film celebrities was prevalent. A big reason behind her popularity was that her movies reflected struggles that women (especially lower middle-class women) knew all too well. Audiences felt a connection to her.
FQ: How long did it take to write this work, considering all the fact-gathering that must have been involved? Did you have trouble finding resources, or get discouraged at any time, given some of the material (including Husband and Wife in Name) has been lost?
GALVAN: I’d collected three years of research by the time I decided to do the book, and continued educating myself as I wrote over a period of nine months. Materials came from across the world, in three languages (English, Chinese, and French—huge thanks to my translators Zhang Le and François Coulombe). Writing about the lost movies wasn’t so difficult, as Chinese historians have done a remarkable job preserving plot synopses, reviews, and testimonies from the people who worked on them.
Of course, I’m sad many of these films no longer exist. You mentioned Ruan’s debut film, Husband and Wife In Name—obviously that’s of historical interest. I also regret we can no longer see pictures that cast her against type. The image most associated with this actress even now is proletarian suffering; in her surviving films, she almost consistently plays someone victimized by society. But as I discovered in my research, this wasn’t always the case. In Bu Wancang’s Three Modern Women(1932), Ruan played a take-charge activist resisting the exploitation of the working class. And in Sun Yu’s Spring Dream in the Old Capital (1930), she was a straight-up villainess—someone who brings suffering upon others!
I’ll add this last research story, about the occasional difficulty of locating materials. Ruan’s earliest extant film, Love and Duty(1931), is based on a novel by European author Stephanie Rosenthal, who married a Chinese, moved to his country, and wrote fiction about her adopted homeland. The novel was penned in French and later given Chinese and English editions. I knew it was a long shot given its obscurity (and that the book was nearly a hundred years old then) but hoped to track down an English copy as part of my research; I’d just about given up when I discovered one was available at a bookstore in Australia.
FQ: Do you have plans for more books of a similar nature? Another biography of someone, once famous, from a bygone era?
GALVAN: I don’t have plans for more biographies at the moment. Though if I were to do one, likely the subject would be another less-talked-about person from Asia.
FQ: Could you envision making/directing a feature-length film or film series about Ruan Lingyu? It seems like her life and career would make a fascinating movie.
GALVAN: To date, there have been several Chinese television shows about Ruan. On the film front, Stanley Kwan directed a movie in 1991 called Center Stage, which documents his personal fascination with Ruan and his efforts to create an artistic expression about her. The story consists of footage of 1) Kwan conversing with his colleagues about Ruan’s legacy 2) Kwan and his crew shooting a movie about her, and 3) the completed scenes they filmed. It’s not a true biopic, but mesmerizing in its own right.
I think it’d be fun and challenging to make a movie about Ruan. I’d absolutely need assistance—especially from people who know China and filmmaking better than me—but it’d make for an interesting experience.
Personally, I think the ideal movie about Ruan would’ve been the one her colleague Zhu Shilin attempted to make shortly after her death. Zhu wrote several of her films—and even directed a few—so he would’ve been more qualified than most to tell her story. He prepared a five-page treatment for his Ruan Lingyu biopic, though it sadly never got off the ground.
FQ: Building on my last question, in today’s cinema, what actress might play Ruan Lingyu?
GALVAN: Anyone playing Ruan Lingyu today would immediately face comparison with Maggie Cheung Man-yuk’s performance in Center Stage. That’s a tough act to follow. I would’ve been interested in seeing Gillian Chung Ka-lai tackle the part at some point, because—as I document in the book—she personally relates to some of the tribulations Ruan faced.
FQ: Your biography notes that you are part of the team that puts together the online film convention Kaiju Masterclass. Would you tell our readers a bit about it?
GALVAN: Kaiju Masterclass is another project that came about in part because of the pandemic. In 2020, when film conventions throughout the United States were shutting down, a discussion started among some friends of mine. Initially as a joke, they remarked how nice it’d be if there was a Japanese sci-fi convention that—rather than the obvious thing of toys and autographs—focused on intelligent discussion about the movies and the people who made them.
That joke quickly transformed into a serious conversation. I was asked to join a team putting together an online convention (which allowed us to interview people in Japan without the risks and expenses of travel). We scored interviews with a broad variety of people, including filmmakers (Kaneko Shusuke, Higuchi Shinji) and composers (Oshima Michiru, David Arnold, Bear McCreary). In 2021, we held another convention and got a similarly stacked list of guests—one of the big ones being composer Koroku Reijiro, who’d never been interviewed for an English platform before!
The past two Kaiju Masterclass conventions—plus the content we’ve put out since—are archived and free to watch on our YouTube channel of the same name.