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Biopic, Chinese Cinema, Films by women, Melodrama

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:

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