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The Golden Era
The Golden Era

William Feng and Tang Wei discover The Golden Era.


Year: 2014
Director: Ann Hui On-Wah
Producer: Qin Hong

Li Qiang


Tang Wei, William Feng, Wang Zhiwen, Zhu Yawen, Huang Xuan, Hao Lei, Yolanda Yuan, Tian Yuan, Ding Jiali, Wang Qianyuan, Sha Yi, Zu Feng, Zhang Yi, Feng Lei, Yuan Wenkang, Chen Yuemo, Zi Yi, Zhang Jiayi, Yang Xue, Jiao Gang, Ling Zhenghui

The Skinny: Ann Hui’s dry and distant portrait of progressive Chinese writer Xiao Hong intrigues but never becomes truly compelling. When watching The Golden Era, it helps if you know A LOT about Chinese history and especially its early 20th century literature scene. As Xiao Hong, Tang Wei is enigmatic and attractive, though never quite engaging.
by Kozo:

Lengthy and frustratingly dry, Ann Hui’s The Golden Era dives into China’s early-20th century literature scene while never quite making its subject, progressive writer Xiao Hong a.k.a. Zhang Naiying (played by Tang Wei), into a fully compelling or sympathetic figure. The film follows Xiao Hong from young adulthood in 1920s Manchuria to her death in 1942 during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Throughout the film, connections are made between Xiao Hong’s experiences and her published works, while China’s grand and turbulent history swells in the background and pushes events inexorably forward. In scope and subtext, The Golden Era has the potential for a deep work exploring gender and artistic roles in the highly-charged atmosphere of 1930s China, but the film lacks the emotional or subversive undercurrent that would earn it truly favorable notice. There’s a fascinating film lurking in The Golden Era and one wonders if the project wasn’t compromised somewhere along the way.

Golden Era begins with Xiao Hong’s multiple failed romances, which cause her to become estranged from her family and results in her living in a hotel storage room in Harbin, pregnant and abandoned. She’s not allowed to leave because her fiancé stuck her with the bill and she’s broke, but she tries to get help from a literary journal that’s impressed with her writing. The editors send writer Xiao Jun (William Feng) to meet her, sparking what would become a lengthy relationship between the two. Xiao Hong eventually escapes captivity during a flood, after which she gives birth to her child and then abandons him. Her liaison with Xiao Jun begins in earnest, as the two travel and meet famed authors from China’s literary circle, while their relationship deepens and frays. Xiao Hong’s story is mostly told chronologically, but the film sometimes jumps forward in time for brief cutaways, which help to contextualize her experiences with the benefit of future perspective.

Besides non-linear storytelling, Ann Hui employs voiceover from Xiao Hong and others, who sometimes break the fourth wall to address the audience. This storytelling technique appears jarring at first, but soon becomes engaging, as the direct address serves to effectively transition between scenes. Also some of the forward leaps in time allow for characters to reflect on the past and deliver key exposition. The narrative is delivered elliptically, with focus essentially on quiet moments between larger events, especially historical ones – some of which aren’t fully named (perhaps for political reasons). This method of storytelling is fine for Chinese nationals or Sinophiles, but it presents a bigger problem for international (or just uninformed) audiences. Knowing the political climate of that period – and the ins and outs of the Nationalist vs. Communist conflict – is an advantage because it helps to flesh out the narrative as much as the film’s voiceovers do, and lends the drama greater resonance. The problem is the film doesn’t always make those events clearly known – or worse, assumes you know them already.

The need for prior familiarity extends to Xiao Hong’s circle of friends and acquaintances, most of whom are famous literary names. Besides Xiao Jun, Xiao Hong comes into contact with Lu Xun (Wang Zhiwen), a leading modern Chinese literary figure, and also Duanmu Zhongliang (Zhu Yawen), an admirer of Xiao Hong’s who becomes her husband after she and Xiao Jun part ways during the Chinese Civil War. The parting arises from multiple issues, some overt (like one confirmed affair and other possible dalliances by Xiao Jun) and some implied (Xiao Hong’s popularity as a writer eclipses Xiao Jun’s). In between all this, more writers are namedropped and given screen life, including famous female writer Ding Ling (Hao Lei) and Luo Binji (Huang Xuan), who’s present at Xiao Hong’s death. Every character comments on Xiao Hong, either directly through voiceover or indirectly through conversation, but the portrait created of her is not conclusive or whole, nor is it divisive or controversial.

Then, what is the point of The Golden Era if it doesn’t definitively comment on Xiao Hong? Well…hard to say, really. A lot is said and observed about Xiao Hong but it’s questionable what’s gleamed. Tang Wei possesses strong inner life in the role, in that her performance carries weight beyond the abstruse dialogue and silent stares. However, Xiao Hong never stops being an enigma. The script takes great pains to connect Xiao Hong’s works to specific experiences, but those references require actual knowledge of her writing. Also, the film mentions her “Golden Era”, a time that Xiao Hong spent living in Japan, and covers the period almost entirely in voiceover without dramatizing it. Xiao Hong’s status as a progressive writer, and more to the point a female artist living in a resolutely patriarchal society, answers some questions about the film’s meaning but an emotional connection never really occurs. The Golden Era seemingly eschews drama in favor of context – and a good three hours of it, to boot.

Part of the problem may be the circumspect narrative, which spends too much time talking about Xiao Hong and less allowing the audience into her experiences. There are exceptions to this; some of Xiao Hong’s actions do say plenty about her, like her abandonment of her children – and the fate of the second one carries dark implications that are never confirmed or denied. Also, one can easily read Xiao Hong’s implacable, solitary demeanor as her quiet discontent with her role in China and among society. There’s plenty here that you can read into, but the film never really says enough to guide the viewer. It’s like the filmmakers are dropping a trail of breadcrumbs in the woods – only each crumb is dropped twenty meters apart. The film needs more active moments from Xiao Hong to provide necessary contrast to its distance. But given Xiao Hong’s itinerant lifestyle, the film becomes travelogue-like, gliding by without really taking root.

The Golden Era ends with Xiao Hong’s death during the fall of Hong Kong, which could easily be viewed as symbolism if we really tried to reach, or if the film pushed that connection for us. That doesn’t happen, however. For all its rich historical detail and obvious political issues, the film seems to go out of its way to say very little. In the end, the only opinions we get are those from the characters fawning over Xiao Hong (really, she has few obvious detractors). At some point, we simply have to join those people in admiring Xiao Hong from a distance, or we can just brush her aside like anyone we might meet in real life. If that was the goal of The Golden Era – to make us feel like an acquaintance to an enigmatic progressive writer – then the film succeeds. But if the goal was more – and presumably it was – The Golden Era disappoints. Ann Hui, give us a call if you feel like explaining. (Kozo, 10/2014)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Asia Video (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Original Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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