Falling Flowers: Shanghai Review

Romantic biopic of a Chinese woman writer is highly poetic, but lacks drama and warmth.  

Director Huo Jianqi's romantic biopic tells the story of renowned woman writer Xiao Hong.

The main interest in the overly classical period piece Falling Flowers is its faithful retelling of the life of renowned woman writer Xiao Hong (1911-1942), whose bold independence and devotion to art strikes a modern chord. Though this biopic that doesn’t scratch the surface very deeply, director Huo Jianqi (Postmen in the Mountains, Life Show) is a sure-handed craftsman whose portrait of the artist has a strongly emblematic quality; had it also been moving, it would have had wider art house appeal. As stands, it should entice curious festival viewers to read her highly rated books The Field of Life and Death and Tales of Hulan River.

In 1941 a young woman lays dying in Hong Kong, attended by an anxious young man.  Xiao Hong (Song Jia) tells him her life story in flashback, beginning with growing up in the cold, melancholic northeastern China. Despite her academic promise, her conservative father forces her to drop out of school to marry a rich dandy. She resists, but they end up living together out of wedlock, causing both their wealthy families to disown them. When she gets pregnant he abandons her in an attic, kick-starting a life of poverty and sacrifice which Hong defiantly embraces.

Thanks to dashing newspaper editor Xiao Jun (Huang Jue), who becomes the love of her life, she narrowly escapes being sold to a brothel to pay back rent. She falls for him because he’s an ex-soldier, “a writer and a fighter,” and they start a poor but romantic life together as intellectuals in 1930s Shanghai, where they co-publish books and plays. Mentioned briefly is Hong’s association with literary giant Lu Xun, who wrote complimentary prefaces to her writing and helped get her books into print. Xiao Jun’s incorrigible two-timing ends their love affair, and their teary farewell at a train station is as close as the film comes to an affecting moment. Her marriage to the much younger Duanmu (Wang Renjun) is more pragmatic than romantic, and from there it’s a short step to her illness and death at age 31 during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong.

In the main role, Song Jia depicts Hong as a tough, modern woman capable of withstanding war and hardship but still the emotional victim of the man she loves. Professional, sharp-tongued but afraid of being left alone, she’s an easy figure to identify with, particularly in her frustrating relationship with a charming Huang Jue. More about her writing would have been welcome, however.

Music veers towards the predictable and saccharine, but Shi Luan’s gorgeous colors won the best cinematography award at the Shanghai film festival.

Venue: Shanghai Film Festival, June 20, 2012.
Production companies: Talent International Film Co.
Cast: Song Jia, Huang Jue, Wang Renjun, Zhang Bo, Wu Chao, Mi Zian, Li Yiling, Li Fengxu, Sun Weiming, Zhang Tong
Director: Huo Jianqi
Screenwriters: Yi Fuhai, Su Xiaowei
Producers: Han Sanping, Wu Hongliang
Director of photography: Shi Luan
Production designer: Lu Feng
Editor: Yu Xi
Music: Shu Nan
No rating, 121 minutes.