Ruan Ling-Yu is probably the most talented, most famous movie star in 20s and 30s Chinese silent film era. In her short life she had starred in more than 20 films, many of them are regarded as masterpieces.
Ruan Ling-Yu was born in Shanghai in 1910. Her family was a poor migrant family from Canton. Lost her father in the early age, she had to help her mother who worked as a house maid. However her mother managed to send her to a school where she recognised her passion for stage performance the first time.
Ruan Ling-Yu was discovered by director Bu Wancang from Star Film Company and starred in her first film The Couple in Name (1926). The film was a mild success and she starred several films for Star in the next few years. Her career took off when she left Star and joined Da Zhonghua Baihe Film Company which merged with other companies and became Lianhua Film Company later. The first film she starred for Lianhua, A Dream in the Old Capital (1929) was a huge success and made her name. In Lianhua, Ruan Ling-Yu worked with a group of creative and exciting young directors and writers and starred in a dozen of critical acclaimed yet commercially successful films, including Wild Flowers by the Road (1930), Love and Duty (1931), Little Cuttie (1933), Goodbye Shanghai (1934), New Women (1934), The Goddess (1934). Her ability to understand and convey the director's intention was universally praised by the directors she worked with.
Contrast to her success on the screen, her personal life was a tragedy. She fell in love with Zhang Damin, the young master of the house her mother worked, before starting her film career. They lived together eventually. But in a class-divided society they couldn't get married because of the objection from Zhang Damin's mother. Their relationship deteriorated when she became successful. She later left Zhang and lived with a businessman Tang Jishan. When Zhang sued Tang for damage this became a scandal in 30s Shanghai and Ruan Ling-Yu was hounded by the tabloid press. Under severe pressure, Ruan Ling-Yu committed suicide by sleeping pill overdose in the early morning of 8th March, 1935. Her sudden death ignited fierce debate on the behavior of tabloid newspapers and the protection of women in public life. Her funeral was attended by thousands of people.
Ruan Ling-Yu's screen charisma and tragic life have since been fascinated by many people. Hong Kong directors Stanley Kwan's The Actress (1991) starring Maggie Cheung tells the story of Ruan Ling-Yu poetically which won Maggie Cheung the Silver Bear in Berlin Film Festival and several Hong Kong Film Awards.