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This powerful drama about an independent-minded music teacher who dreams of becoming a celebrated writer was the swan song for the tragically short-lived screen legend Ruan Lingyu, who took her own life mere months after the film's release.
New Women was iconic actress Ruan Lingyu's swan song, released mere months before her suicide; its story, thinly adapted from the memoir of Ai Xia, an actresses hounded to death by the press several years earlier, eerily parallels Ruan's own tragically short life. "Often seen [by critics] as a metaphor for China itself, suffering under semi-colonialism, semi-feudalism and Japanese invasion" (Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China On Screen), Ruan here plays the very model of a "new woman," an independent-minded music teacher who dreams of becoming a celebrated writer. Her struggles, intensified by lecherous and vengeful men out to manipulate her and the need to provide for her sick daughter in the countryside, are contrasted with those of her best friend, a patriotic female factory worker who is presented as a model figure for post-revolutionary women. Influential left-wing director Cai Chusheng experiments with both the literary humanism of the May 4th Movement and the new revolutionary class politics in this fascinating transitional film, making Ruan both the embodiment of the era's complexities and contradictions and the hope for their resolution; as Berry and Farquhar write, "If Ruan herself embodies a China that cannot act now, she also acts as a channel for the expression and articulation of hopes for future agency."