Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Golden Era (Huang jin shi dai, China-Hong Kong 2014)

Tang Wei as Xiao Hong in Golden Era

Tang Wei as Xiao Hong in Golden Era

This film was playing at the Glasgow Film Festival where I saw two other recent Chinese films, Dearest (China-HK 2014) and Red Amnesia (China 2014). I saw The Golden Era earlier at Cornerhouse in Manchester for the annual Chinese New Year treat courtesy of the Chinese Film Forum. Golden Era is a biopic, a melodrama and a very personal film by Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui (one of the case study directors in The Global Film Book). The Hong Kong entry for Foreign Language Oscar in 2015, The Golden Era did not make the final selection but this is no surprise given its length, large cast of mainly ensemble players and its lead character who is an important Chinese writer from the 1930s but not widely known outside China itself.

I usually prefer to see films ‘cold’ but in this case I think it would have been useful to have read some of the background on the narrative’s subject, Xiao Hong. This might have made it easier to understand the inter-relationships of the central characters and their movements during the turbulence in China in the 1930s. Xiao Hong was born in Manchuria close to the border with Russia in 1911 and eventually found her way to Hong Kong where she died in 1942. She tells us this in a ‘to camera’ statement at the start of the film and this is a strategy Ann Hui deploys throughout the film as different characters in the story comment on their ‘take’ on the writer and what happened to her. This is both a narrative device to disrupt the conventions of the biopic and something of a necessity because there are so many gaps in the known history of the character. This means we get some contrasting versions of what might have happened and why. The device made me think of Actress/Centre Stage (HK 1992) Stanley Kwan’s audacious film about the 1930s Shanghai film star Ruan Lingyu in which Maggie Cheung plays the star and appears as herself.

Xiao Jun  (Feng Shaofeng) and Xiao Hong (Tang Wei) the young lovers.

Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng) and Xiao Hong (Tang Wei) the young lovers.

The Golden Era is a complex story about a genuine rebel character. Originally named Zhang Naiying, Hong had an unhappy childhood and ran away from an arranged marriage only to find herself pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ and abandoned at 20 in a cheap hotel in Harbin. Her rescuers were from the local group of writers. She fell for one of them and the couple changed their names to Xiao. She became Hong, he became Jun. From her early beginnings as a writer Hong wrote about her feelings and about the social environment. In 1931 Japan occupied what a year later would become the puppet state of Manchukuo. Hong herself would later spend time in Tokyo where she coined the term ‘Golden Era’ to describe a special period in her own life – recognising that she had time to herself (Jun was not with her) to write and that this was what she prized most. (I found this to be a striking observation for a young woman in her twenties.) At other times she visited Shanghai and became part of semi-official Chinese literary culture. However, as the Japanese invasion of the rest of China began to take hold in 1937, she and her fellow writers began to move West, ahead of the Japanese and joining up with the Communist Party. Hong and Jun split – for several reasons. He wanted to fight, she just wanted to write. When she did eventually marry it was not for love.

It isn’t difficult to see what attracted Ann Hui to this project. She herself was born in Manchuria in 1947 and her mother was Japanese. Like Hong, she moved to Hong Kong (but as a child aged 5). For one of the most acclaimed female directors in Chinese film, Hong’s story is full of important examples of refusal to abide by the conventions that bound most Chinese women of the time – of family, of ‘romance’, of ideologies of ‘cultural work’. The role of Hong requires an actor of great presence and strength and this is a wonderful performance by Tang Wei, probably best known outside China for the lead female role in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (China/US/Taiwan 2007). The remainder of the ensemble cast is very strong too, many are actors who seem familiar including Hao Lei as Ding Lin, another prominent female writer, but one who is a redoubtable CCP soldier.

The film appeared at major festivals including Venice (closing night film) and Toronto but it received a mixed reception. Variety called the film ‘stifling’ and ‘unilluminating’. I’m an Ann Hui fan but I confess that in the opening sequences, knowing that the film was 177 minutes, I did wonder where it was going to go and whether I’d be able to cope with so many characters. In truth I thought the second part of the film was preferable to the first. I think there are two reasons for this. One was that I began to feel more comfortable with the array of characters and secondly the film became more of a recognisable melodrama. I guess that around half the audience in Manchester were Mandarin speakers and I noticed that they laughed at one moment when I was responding to what seemed like classic melodrama. It may be that the subtitling didn’t carry a joke – or perhaps it was that the younger Chinese audience is less familiar with classic melodramas. I thought about the films of Xie Jin in particular, but was also reminded of my recent viewing of Spring In a Small Town (China 1948). In these films it is usually the woman at the centre of the story – and often it is relationships between women that really matter.

Thinking about melodrama also prompts considerations of the films problems – and potential solutions. The interior lives of writers are difficult to register on film. At the two extremes are sequences of someone writing in a room or visualisations of their ideas that might be quite spectacular. Xiao Hong’s biography does indeed comprise many scenes in rooms punctuated by dramatic events in a country mired in war (a lot of train trips, wagon rides and ferries). Melodrama at least offers us the pleasures of costume, colour, hair and make-up and this is a feature of The Golden Era. I enjoyed the cinematography of Wang Yu (Suzhou River, 24 City) and the art direction of Zhao Hai.

Reading the varied responses to the film I was struck by that of Derek Elley for Film Business Asia. He thinks that the film fails (he also refers to another recent version of the same story, Falling Flowers in 2012). Elley argues that Ann Hui is less comfortable with period films but he puts most of the blame on Tang Wei who he agues is completely miscast. I haven’t seen Ann Hui’s other period films so I can’t comment on that aspect. The Tang Wei argument is more troublesome. Elley clearly doesn’t rate her as an actress and argues she can’t hold the narrative together. I’m not sure she has to. The story is as much about the people around her and how they see her. Elley makes sharp comments. Here’s an extended quote:

Looking and acting way too modern throughout, Tang is unable even to come up with a consistent style of delivering her dialogue, wobbling between softer standard Mandarin and a hard, gutsy northern accent. She seems out of place from the start and doesn’t make Xiao Hong (for all her faults) somebody worth caring about across three hours of drama and tragedy. It’s a typically loose, unfocused performance by the 34-year-old actress that seeps out into the rest of the movie.

It’s always difficult watching a film and having to rely on subtitles and being unable to distinguish accents and dialects. But this is a common charge in many film cultures (I’m equally guilty of criticising UK and US actors for inappropriate accents). Perhaps that laughter quoted above was aimed at the delivery of the dialogue? As to the performance overall, Ann Hui is a vastly experienced and highly-celebrated director. I can’t really see her accepting the kind of performance Elley refers to. I acknowledge his comments and I agree with some of them up to a point but overall I enjoyed the film and Tang Wei’s performance. Unfortunately, like the other two films mentioned at the start of this review I don’t think that The Golden Era will be widely seen in UK cinemas. Distributors seem afraid of releasing Chinese films of any kind.

Here’s the international trailer with English subs:

And a Chinese trailer with English subs:

Giovanni’s Island (Japan 2014)


Junpei and Kanta playing in their house before the Russians arrive

These are the notes for the film screening:


Japan has a long and distinguished history of popular visual cultural forms. Modern manga (graphic novels) and anime (animated stories) draw upon the great woodblock traditions of 18th and 19th century Japan (which in turn drew from much earlier Japanese art traditions). The manga that have become known internationally largely developed in Japan after 1945 and represent an entertainment and art form drawing on globalising popular culture adapting traditional Japanese visual traditions and stories. Anime, which really took off in the 1960s, similarly draws on aspects of Western animation but in distinctively Japanese ways. Many anime are adapted, sometimes quite radically, from successful manga.

The important point is that manga are read by all kinds of people in Japan with estimates of up to 40% of all Japanese publishing being devoted to manga.  There are manga for all kinds of readers and some manga are unique and radical in their appeal to readers. The same is true of anime. Although many anime are made relatively cheaply as TV series, some, especially those from Miyazaki Hayao’s Studio Ghibli have been the biggest box office films in Japan over the last twenty years. Like the Miyazaki films, Giovanni’s Island is essentially a story told from a child’s perspective, but one that explores serious philosophical ideas.

Inevitably, anime are compared to Hollywood animations (Disney is the distributor for Studio Ghibli in the West). In technical terms anime are low budget with a lower frame rate producing jerkier motion and a drawn animation style that is less ‘realist’ and more closely linked to traditional drawing styles. For many fans, anime are more beautiful than similar Hollywood creations as well as more dramatic and challenging.

Japanese history in Japanese films

The period of Allied Occupation from 1945 to 1952 had a traumatic effect on Japanese culture and society. Many films deal with the problems of returning soldiers, the women who had stayed in Japan, ‘repatriated’ colonial families, poverty and starvation, the black market, the impact of American GIs and American culture etc. The Allied fire-bombing of cities and the atomic bomb attacks are represented symbolically and several films focus on stories about children in the devastation after 1945.

Giovanni’s Island draws on many of these ideas. The story takes place on Shikotan Island in the South Kurils. The Kuril islands form the long archipelago between Hokkaido island in Japan and the Kamchatka peninsula of Russia. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, Japan controlled the southern half of the large island of Sakhalin close to the Russian coast (referred to as Karafuto in the film) and all of the Kuril Islands. The film is accurate in terms of the events depicted. Soviet forces took control of the whole archipelago in 1945 and eventually all the Japanese inhabitants were expelled. Japan still claims the four main Kuril Islands, including Shikotan.

The story

The film’s title refers to a children’s fantasy novel, Night on the Galactic Railroad by Miyazawa Kenji written after a railway trip to Sakhalin while the author was mourning his sister’s death. The novel has a religious/philosophical theme about self-sacrifice. It has been adapted several times as the basis for manga and anime.

The Galactic Railroad links the two boys to their father and also to Tanya. Another juvenile novel was adapted as one of the most famous and successful Japanese films of the 1950s, The Burmese Harp (1956), in which Japanese soldiers in Burma in 1945 discover that they and their British captors enjoy singing the same song (‘There’s No Place Like Home’). This film, like Giovanni’s Island demonstrates a certain kind of humanism in which the victors and the defeated share aspects of popular culture. Japan had become more open to ‘Western’ culture in the 1920s and 1930s and in Giovanni’s Island popular songs (the Russian one later became a UK pop hit as ‘Those Were the Days’ in 1968) and the model railway provide the means to share.

Further reading

Napier, Susan (2006) Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, Basingstoke: Palgrave

More details of the film on Anime Network.

Algorithms (UK/India 2013)

These notes were provided for the film screening of Algorithms:

Ian McDonald is a scholar and a filmmaker based at Newcastle University. He currently teaches postgraduate modules on ‘Film Practice’. His background is in politics and sociology and he eventually specialised in the sociology of sports. Using film in his research, he began to make his own short documentary films, the first on martial arts in the Indian state of Kerala in 2007. Algorithms is his first feature-length documentary made over a period of four years.

The filmmaker’s ‘profile’ on the university’s staff pages includes this intriguing description of his approach:

“ . . . Ian’s shift to documentary filmmaking is informed by a seemingly effortless ‘way of seeing’ based on the ‘sociological imagination’. A distinctive form of film practice that refuses the boundaries between documentary, visual sociology and art can be evinced in his works”.

Algorithms has an Indian producer, Geetha J, and an Indian creative team, mostly based in Kerala. The music score is by Prasanna based in Boston and Chennai. The score uses Carnatic musicians to support guitar work in the Carnatic tradition.

Kanta struggled to find the time for chess with all his college work to do

Anant (right) struggled to find the time for chess with all his college work to do

The sports documentary
There are many documentary forms in global cinema. Documentary could be argued to be a ‘mode’ of film practice within which there are various genre narratives and approaches. The sports documentary itself takes several forms but the most popular tend to draw on Hollywood genre conventions.The characters include young people from humble beginnings who struggle to overcome barriers, the inspirational coach, the pushing parents, the unscrupulous manager, the fans etc. The narrative might be expected to include initial successes and inevitable setbacks but to finish triumphantly.

Algorithms does include some of these elements but its overall aims are quite different and its presentation of events is unique in style. Ian McDonald is interested in the relationship between sport and society and particularly the ‘sporting outsider’ – the one who is seen differently by ‘normal’ society.

The approach
The film has four central characters. The inspirational figure is Charudatta, the former blind chess champion who has retired and who now sees his mission as finding the next blind champions – who he believes will beat the best sighted players. The three teenagers he mentors and guides through international competitions are each very different characters who come from different backgrounds in different parts of India. The film shifts between the three and conveys a strong sense of place and of culture.

Darpan is from a middle-class family in Baroda, a major city in Gujarat state in Western India. Totally blind with very supportive parents his highly-organised life is contrasted with Anant, also totally blind who lives in Bhubaneswar (capital city of Odisha/Orissa on the East Coast). Anant’s family don’t have the same resources and fear that chess will interfere with his studies – necessary to get a good job. Further down the coast in Chennai, Sai Krishna is the youngest of the three. He still has some vision but it is declining inexorably. The three boys have different personalities and Charu has to be flexible in his treatment of the boys and their families.

Shooting over three years and amassing 240 hours of footage, Ian McDonald has made several strategic decisions. The footage has been processed as black and white with heightened contrast. There also seems to be a distinction between the actual chess games shown in close-up – almost abstract rather than observational – and the long-shot compositions of the tournament locations and family homes. In narrative terms, McDonald explains little (certainly about chess competitions, the rules of which the audience must glean from the footage). Instead he allows the main characters to tell their own stories through dialogues and what we see them doing. Crucially, there is no voiceover and no ‘talking heads’ who speak direct to camera.