'The Golden Era' ('Huangjin shidai'): Venice Review

Huangjin Shidai
Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
A biopic of ideas rather than emotions, though strangely not necessarily the ideas of the writer whose life it chronicles

"Lust, Caution" actress Tang Wei stars in this unconventional biopic of Chinese writer Xiao Hong from director Ann Hui

VENICE -- The eventful life of female Chinese novelist, poet and essayist Xiao Hong, who died in 1942, at age 32, is the nominal subject of The Golden Era (Huangjin shidai), the new film from veteran Hong Kong director Ann Hui, whose last film, A Simple Life, impressed with its apparent simplicity and warmth. This is not the case in her latest film, which is not a conventional biopic, as Hui and Chinese star screenwriter Li Qiang attempt something bolder, having many of the fictional versions of the characters directly address the audience to introduce slightly differing accounts of their memories of the writer. It’s a gamble that only partially works and makes this three-hour period film even more rarefied for audiences unfamiliar with its subject. However, twin Venice and Toronto premieres should at least jumpstart a modest festival run.

The film declares its intentions right from the outset, opening with a black-and-white shot of Xiao Hong (Tang Wei, the discovery from Lust, Caution), who directly addresses the audience, stating her name and when and where she was born and died. Crucially, it is the only time Xiao herself breaks the fourth wall, as for the rest of the film this honor falls to those around her, with her family members and friends recounting memories involving Xiao that subsequently play out in short scenes that feel more like a traditional biopic.

Especially in the film’s first half-hour, there are a lot of these direct-to-camera introductions, which are necessary to present the various speakers. But there’s a major disadvantage here as well, as Xiao Hong herself remains something of a cipher for much too long in her own film, being talked about by others but not being allowed to simply be experienced without any direct filter, so the audience can make up its own mind about her.

Xiao (real name: Zhang Naiying) fled from a difficult childhood in Manchuria, where her mother committed suicide because of her abusive father. Early on, her younger brother (Ling Zhengui) recounts a chance meeting with his sibling after she escaped the household, when she was scraping by alone in the city of Harbin (their encounter would later become the basis of her story Early Winter).

The arranged marriage Xiao was trying to escape got her into more trouble when the man (Yuan Wenkang) she didn’t want to marry finally left her with an enormous hotel bill she couldn’t afford, with the hotel proprietor threatening to sell her to a brothel to pay her bills. Desperate, she pens a letter to the International Gazette paper pleading for help, and is thus introduces to a circle of writers, including the oft-drunk but kind writer Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng). He pushed her to continue writing and would become the love of her life, even if their couple was the kind of explosive union that could neither be apart nor ever make it work together.

Xiao Jun’s memories of Hong are colored not only by his strong feelings for her but also by his age. He wrote her letters when they were together but physically separated, which led to various dalliances for both with further complicated their rapport, but also wrote about her much later in life. How this might have influenced his writing is suggested in a simple but very effective sequence in which the film juxtaposes Jun’s rather simple account of his final breakup with Hong with that of the only man Hong would eventually marry, Duanmu Hongliang (Zhu Yawen), who’s version is more elaborate and paints Jun in a not altogether positive light.

It seems appropriate, seen how most of her peers praise her writing for its emotional lucidity, that Xiao’s complicated love life is such a major part of the story (though to what extent her life directly influenced her work remains rather vague since there's no real sense of what her writing was like for the non-initiated). One of the film’s most extraordinary scenes is Xiao Hong’s blisteringly honest wedding speech, which acknowledges her ties to Xiao Jun in front of her now-husband Duanmu, relates the prosaic circumstances under which the newlyweds met and details her complete lack of expectations for their union. Often a plaything in the memories of others, Tang sores in this particular scene, conveying such emotional honesty and not-all-that-quiet heartbreak that even those who have never read anything by her will come away with the sense she’s got a way with words that’s both insightful about the human condition and heartrending for her personally.

Unfortunately, scenes such as these are few and far between. Despite its already elaborate -- some might say overstuffed -- narrative structure, Hui and Li occasionally use other techniques (such as showing the text of one of her poems on-screen) as well, though more haphazardly. At any rate, it’s clear the film’s trying to suggest how it’s impossible to get a perfectly clear picture of who Xiao Hong was, since synthesizing her own work and letters and the occasionally conflicting accounts of others can be attempted but will never be fully successful.

Something similar can be said about an artist and her work, since no artist can truly understand their own work since it’s always filtered through the mind and experiences of those that engage with it (this obviously applies to Xiao but also to Hui). However interesting, such considerations do remain rather academic and have a distancing effect when applied to someone’s life story, making The Golden Era finally more a film about ideas and theories rather than a story that’s more directly involving emotionally.

The Golden Era’s title refers to a more introspective sense of time and opportunity but can also be taken as an ironic comment on the 1930s, an especially tumultuous period in Chinese history that saw the rise of the Communist party and the invasion by the Japanese. Several of Xiao Hong’s colleagues, including the most famous female scribe of the time, Ding Ling (Hao Lei), joined the Red Army and abandoned writing, though Xiao unassumingly pushed forward as a writer even as the war is forcing her to move from city to city (her few years in Japan just before the war are also briefly referenced). Xiao Hong finally ended up in Hong Kong, as bombs rained down on the colonial territory where she died of tuberculosis. 

The film’s production design clearly conveys the constant moving around, with a lot of location work to suggest the different locales. However, the lighting often retains an artificial edge that serves as a visual reminder of how the film’s only an artificial recreation rather than the real thing.  

Production companies: Stellar Mega Films,?China Film Co.,?Edko Films,?Beijing Spring Film & TV Culture Co., Beijing Cheerland Film & TV Culture Communication Co., Beijing CAISSA Culture Communication Co., J.Q.Pictures Ltd.?21st Century Media Corporation,?Youku Tudou

Cast: Tang Wei?, Feng Shaofeng, Wang Zhiwen, Zhu Yawen, Huang Xuan, Hao Lei, ?Yuan Quan?, Tt Tian, ?Ding Jiali, Wang Qianyuan, Sha Yi, ?Zu Feng, ?Zhang Yi, ?Feng Lei?, Yuan Wenkang, Chen Yuemo, Wang Ziyi, Zhang Jiayi, Yang Xue?, Ling Zhenghui

Director: Ann Hui

Screenplay: Li Qiang

Producer: Qin Hong

Director of photography: Wang Yu

Production designer: Zhao Hai

Costume designer: Man Lim-Chung

Editor: Manda Wai

Music: Eli Marshall

Sales: Edko Films Limited


No rating, 179 minutes