That silent screen goddess Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935) is better known to today's film buffs than to their counterparts a half-century ago is attributable to two relatively modern phenomena: Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and the internet.
Ruan, the centennial of whose birth is being commemorated by a retrospective at the Hong Kong Film Archive, was at the pinnacle of Shanghai celebrity when her life ended in suicide shortly before her 25th birthday. The ensuing decades saw her name sink into obscurity as talkies relegated silent pictures to the dustbin of history, a situation compounded by the spotty nature of movie preservation and the post-1949 Chinese government's antipathy to star worship.
Although prints of many Ruan features resided in Beijing's Film Archives, for years they went unseen by all but a few scholars. If the actress was mentioned in the press, it was less to discuss her virtuosity than to treat her as a symbolic victim of the pre-communist era's scandal-mongering tabloids and the lowly status of women, even luminaries, when confronted with masculine betrayal.
Lost in the shuffle was a palpable reminder of Ruan's effervescent charm and subtle mastery of a mute thespian art form that by 1930 had been abandoned by Hollywood in favour of recorded dialogue, but in China continued to flourish throughout the early 1930s. Though the Chinese screen began to talk in 1930-31, silent pictures (some accompanied by a soundtrack with music and effects) were produced till mid-decade, with Ruan acclaimed by contemporary critics and audiences alike as one of the medium's most brilliant practitioners.
Those years coincided with her contract at United Photoplay Service (UPS, known in Chinese as Lianhua), a studio with a rare commitment to films combining commercial viability and social relevance. It was there that Ruan's artistry reached its peak in an array of roles, from European-tinged costume comedies such as A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931) - based on William Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona - to the grim realism of The Goddess (1934), in which her portrayal of a prostitute struggling to raise an infant son represented a high-water mark in the waning years of Chinese silents.
It is these UPS productions that are the foundation of Ruan's recently achieved stature as a major talent - in Asian cinema and on the world's silent stage.
Many of her films are missing or incomplete, but enough survived for Ruan's art to be showcased in the more embracing cultural atmosphere that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Yet this alone does not explain why Ruan has become such a familiar name to new generations of fans around the globe. After all, Shanghai's silent celluloid pantheon is populated with megastars all but unknown to today's audiences. Take Butterfly Wu, Ruan's major rival who went on to a long career in both Mandarin and Cantonese films. True, Wu's life did not have a tragic end, but what of contemporaries such as Ai Xia, whose 1934 suicide was the inspiration for Ruan's The New Women (1935), or Xu Lai, who was persecuted to death during the Cultural Revolution?
This is where Maggie Cheung comes in.
Ruan's 21st-century fame would probably not have been possible without Centre Stage (1992), director Stanley Kwan Kam-pang's Ruan biopic for which Cheung won best actress statuettes in Berlin and Hong Kong. Whatever one's critical opinion of Centre Stage, it was Cheung's performance that became the catalyst that catapulted Ruan back into public consciousness.
Hong Kong Film Archive's The Bitter Tears of Ruan Lingyu showcase runs until July 4