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Golden Era, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Short life, long movie, both well worth it."
5 stars

Most of the descriptions of Xiao Hong biography "The Golden Era" spend some time talking about what made her remarkable as a writer, and the film does give those of us not terribly familiar with 1930s Chinese literature a bit of a taste of her words and why they are remembered despite her short career and life. But while the focus is less on what she created and more on how what she wanted - a "quiet place to write" - was elusive, the way in which screenwriter Li Qiang and director Ann Hui tell the story is often what will be the most striking.

Xiao Hong (Tang Wei) was born Zhang Naiying on 2 June 1911, in Manchuria, and as we're informed right away, she died on 22 January 1942 in Hong Kong. The film spends little time on her childhood, aside from an excerpt from her writing that described her grandfather as the most encouraging part of it, though it was her early adulthood that seemed most disastrous: Having run away to escape an arranged marriage, she returned home in disgrace, eventually pregnant and held prisoner for debts in the city of Harbin until she connects with the local literary magazine. That's when she meets Sun Lang (Feng Shaofeng), pen name "Xiao Jun", who would become her partner in literature and life. It would not be an easy partnership, though - while both were part of the Shanghai literary circle of legendary writer Lu Xun (Wang Zhiwen), Xiao Jun was more drawn to political activism in the nascent Communist Party than Xiao Hong during a very turbulent period in Chinese history, to say nothing of the other woman.

One of the first shots of the film is a black and white image of Xiao Hong relating the time and place of her birth and death, and it's an interesting choice, if it does initially seem a bit conventionally unconventional. Soon other voices are added, and while having Xiao Hong narrate her life story would have perhaps have given the film a false sense of omniscience, Li and Hui instead quickly move to establish just how limited what people know can be: Xiao Jun points out that there were no pictures of some members of his family, leaving them as unknown, and narration points out that not only did the man to whom Xiao Hong was betrothed disappear, but so did his entire family; finding out more about this chapter of her life is a dead end.

While many filmmakers, figuring this to be the best way to let the audience get immersed in the story, tend to taper off this sort of flagrant breaking of the fourth wall as the film moves on, Hui and company increase it in some ways: New narrators who speak directly to the audience are added throughout, and Hui will frequently have a scene shot or cut so that it's not quite clear whether a person is addressing another character or the audience, whether by the words chosen or how a gaze through the screen is held. A moment late in the film would when few filmmakers would decide to get whimsical is when some fun is had with people having different self-serving versions of events later. Brief flash-forwards remind the audience of when some of this perspective is coming from, and there are some weird holes in the last act, almost an acknowledgment that there's no way of knowing why Xiao Hong made some of the choices she made; she did not live long enough to write about this part of her life.

That makes this portion of the film a bit more of a challenge for Tang Wei, but it's where she does some of her best work, making Xiao Hong feel like she's staying in a dangerous situation for reasons we'd understand if we knew them, but not havinng to actually show the cause and effect. She's excellent throughout the rest of the film, too, capturing that Xiao Hong is young and still in many ways optimistic and idealistic despite the trials she has faced and how accomplished she has become as a writer. It would be easy to make this feel contradictory, but Tang is able to handle just about everything that the film throws her way during its long running time, and that's a rather full range.

Much of that time is spent playing off Feng Shaofeng as Xiao Jun, and his being difficult to like in this context can make it easy to overlook how good a job he does in the role. The early scenes of the pair falling in love and it carrying them through times when they have nothing are utterly delightful, and there's a sort of brilliance in how Xiao Hong getting praise as a superior writer gets under his skin. He even manages to make the late scene where Xiao Jun's worse attributes are being exaggerated both funny and not entirely parody. Other cast members drift in and out, with Wang Zhiwen's Lu Xun being the most memorable - he's a great mentor type without actually giving out wise and sagacious advice, with a dry wit (and I'm saying that from subtitles; the Mandarin-speakers around me loved him). He himself is often paired with Ding Jiali as his wife "Madam Xu" Guangping, a sensible woman who anchors every scene she's in. Other standout members of a rather large ensemble come later, particularly Hao Lei as Ding Ling (another legendary Chinese writer, though she was serving more as a teacher/soldier at this point). Two men who loomed large at the end of Xiao Hong's life, and while Zhu Yawen is sometimes a bit tough to read as later partner Duanmu Hongliang, but Huang Xuan does much better with the "young audience surrogate" character than most do.

The large ensemble fits the long movie - The Golden Era is just short of the three-hour mark - but it's impressive just how well Hui keeps things moving, especially considering that a lot of the things she does, like the cut-aways to characters addressing the camera and repeating visual motifs, can often make a film feel longer. This one does sort of bog down a bit at the end - given how a few liberties seem to be taken earlier, the need to accurately track how an ailing Xiao Hong was shuffled between hospitals as the Japanese entered Hong Kong feels like stretching out a foregone conclusion - but it's otherwise brisk. Hui excels in making the environment part of the film - there's a long stretch, covering years, where it seems like it is always winter, and there's a bite to it that reinforces the heroine's strength rather than make the world seem bleak. There's also an eye-popping set piece involving a flooded city.

Hong Kong has submitted "The Golden Era" as its entry for the Oscars' "Foreign Language Film" award, and while it might not make the cut - the other entries I've seen are quite good as well - but it's certainly worthy. It tells a writer's story with the extra craft one would expect, even as it acknowedges the difficulties in doing so more plainly than most biographies do.

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originally posted: 10/19/14 14:01:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2014 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2014 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/28/16 Peter Rusu I love it for their apearance,voices ,for story; for interiors,city scenes,for costumes,the 5 stars
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Directed by
  Ann Hui

Written by
  Qiang Li

  Wei Tang
  Shaofeng Feng
  Zhiwen Wang
  Yawen Zhu
  Xuan Huang
  Lei Hao

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