Ruan Lingyu, Zheng Junli, Wang Naidong, Wang Moqiu,
Inspired by the real-life suicide of actress Ai Xia, New Women pointedly addresses the struggles of China’s urban “new women” to survive independently; tragically, its tale of a talented woman hounded by gossip into suicide was mirrored by the death of its lead actress, the legendary Ruan Lingyu, who would kill herself only months after the film’s release. Ruan plays a strong-willed music teacher and single mother whose dreams of becoming an author (with a novel fittingly titled The Tomb of Love) are dashed by various clueless, amorous, or villainous men. As her colleague, Zheng Junli provides one small bit of hope. The film’s bleakness is shocking for its time and still eye-opening today, presenting a world of high-society swells consuming and discarding women like liquor bottles, with our new woman struggling to keep her child, and her talent, alive. “We have no power to change this society,” the heroine cries; her final shout—”I want to live!”—proves the most courageous, and heartbreaking, of all. They were Ruan Lingyu’s final onscreen words.