If you already know your oats about 20th-Century Chinese literature, you will no doubt already know of Xiao Hong, the immensely respected female novelist, poet, and short story writer, and may indeed be anxious to glimpse behind the veil of her canonical works at the woman within. If you do not, however, you may wonder why you are spending three-hours of your life trundling after this painfully self-serious character as she is buffeted by the fickle winds of fate and her own, often self-defeating, will across the divided, war torn, and finally occupied China of the 1930s and ‘40s. Ann Hui’s film “The Golden Era” was an odd choice to close the Venice Film Festival (to muted reaction), but feels like it may play a little better in the context of the Tokyo International Film Festival, with its focus on pan-Asian cinema. But it still does not work for the obtuse Westerners in the audience, like ourselves, who could well have done with a little less self-involved angst and a little more context as to why this story truly needed to be told.
Hui’s filmmaking is solid, with standard-issue epic biopic cinematography creating a good sense of period and place, though the mood is set constantly to “doomy foreshadowing of tragedy.” She even puts a semi-experimentalist twist on proceedings by having her actors, in character, frequently address camera directly as though they are being interviewed about Xiao Hong—indeed Xiao Hong (“Lust Caution” actress Tang Wei) introduces the film herself, “Sunset Boulevard”-style, by announcing the date of her death. But these are meta flourishes on a film which for the most part is enervatingly classic in format: stately, reverential despite the conflicting accounts the various narrators give of Hong’s motivations, and often quite dull, despite its focus not on her work or talent but on the more salacious and controversial aspects of her personal life. This last factor is most problematic for the Xiao Hong neophytes in the audience—entirely contrary to the film’s presumed intention to increase our admiration for a formidably independent-minded woman living a tragically short life through the most trying of circumstances, Hui’s Hong is diminished by this treatment, her struggles reduced almost exclusively to relationship issues, and her strong willed individualism often coming across as mere petulance.
Xiao Hong died, as the film tells us at the outset, in 1942 in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, when she finally succumbed to the tuberculosis she’d been suffering from for some time. She was just 30-years-old, but over that paltry three decades of existence she criss-crossed China, Hong Kong, and Japan (living a while in Tokyo), outran hardship, lived by her wits and resourcefulness, and engaged in a passionate, high-drama love affair with fellow writer Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng) with whom she published several short story collections. While the idea that pretty much every man who came across her fell in love with her is given definite credibility by the beauty and charisma of Tang Wei in the role, her decisions as regards those relationships—whom she’ll leave, whom she’ll marry, whom she’ll pine for—remain frustratingly opaque, and her agency is therefore too often rendered as mere capriciousness. Of course, the society into which she was born and through which she blazed quite a trail was not one in which female self-expression was given a great deal of leeway, but again this feels like it should enlarge the import of these details of her life, not reduce it.
The film soon settles into its rather numbing, episodic rhythm, detailing Xiao Hong’s encounters with mentors, friends, and lovers from her earliest memories of her kindly grandpa, to her writer husband and the friend of her brother’s who were the ones present at her death. Though even with this plodding approach to pacing it’s often a little confusing as to where we are in time and how long has elapsed since the last scene.
The disappointment of Hui’s film did have us asking some interesting questions about the nature of greatness though, and how the biopic genre can serve or fail to serve its subjects. If you didn’t know anything about, say, James Joyce or John Lennon, and had no idea of the importance of their artistic legacy, would a film that concentrated solely on their private lives, shorn of context, simply end up also being a portrait of a bafflingly self-absorbed person? Very probably, was the conclusion we arrived at, and “The Golden Era” is a case in point. The real woman was apparently a thrillingly talented pioneer who wrote several still-beloved works of fiction and fictionalized autobiography, but Hui’s approach, which assumes a built in knowledge and appreciation for Xiao Hong’s legacy on the part of the audience, is so anxious to look at the woman behind the myth that we found ourselves scrabbling for outside resources to bullet point that myth for us in the first place. It’s a good sign when a biopic drives you to discover more about its subject; not so good when it steers you to a Wikipedia-level basic source to find out who in hell she actually was. Her creative life was key, but the thorny relationships the film focuses on are almost exclusively with men, seldom with women, and only very rarely with her muse.
Here Hui, better known for her Hong Kong dramas dealing in the nature of class, sexuality, ageism, and unemployment among other contemporary issues, gives herself a fighting shot with the glossiness of the package, and its prestigey period trappings, at the kind of crossover hit that international arthouse aficionados might embrace. Sadly “The Golden Era” is that opportunity squandered—it may play very well in China, but what does it serve the rest of us to experience this fascinating woman’s life rendered as little more than slow-moving historical soap opera? [C-]