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Film review: The Golden Era, a biopic of Zhang Naiying (Xiao Hong), lacks humanity

The Golden Era Starring: Tang Wei, FengShaofeng,Wang Zhiwen Director: Ann Hui On-wah Category: IIA (Putonghua)

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 September, 2014, 12:14am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 October, 2014, 2:10pm

The unorthodox life and turbulent times of Zhang Naiying (1911-42) would appear to make for ideal movie material — and would do so even if she hadn't written Chinese literary masterpieces such as The Field of Life and Death and Tales of the Hulan River under the pseudonym Xiao Hong.

So it's no surprise that two respected filmmakers have been inspired to make films about her in recent years.

Mainland director Huo Jianqi's Xiao Hong biopic, Falling Flowers, opened on March 8 — International Women's Day — last year. Now Hong Kong's Ann Hui On-wah has followed suit, with The Golden Era, which had its world premiere at the recent Venice Film Festival. Its release date here and in the mainland is October 1, China's National Day.

A far cry from the auteur's acclaimed intimate local offerings such as A Simple Life and The Way We Are, this period drama focuses on the last decade of Xiao Hong's short life — one that saw the itinerant writer spend time in her native Manchuria, Beijing (where she fled with her first lover), Harbin (where she met the love of her life), Qingdao, Shanghai, Tokyo, Wuhan, Xian, Chongqing, and Hong Kong.

A film that emits a distinctive art house vibe, The Golden Era begins with a short black-and-white segment in which Xiao Hong (Tang Wei) breaks the "fourth wall" to tell the audience directly about key events in her life, including her death at the age of 30 in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong.

The opening five minutes are all that's needed to establish that her life was full of drama, upheaval and movement — and not much happiness at all.

The sad portrait of Xiao Hong that emerges is of someone who wasn't particularly strong. Indeed, her life appears to have been defined more by the men she knew than by her own words and actions.

She was also overshadowed by those around her, notably her long-time lover and fellow writer, Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng), and also the distinguished literary figure, Lu Xun (Wang Zhiwen).

Although executive producer Li Qiang's script incorporates quotes from Xiao Hong's writings, the woman behind them doesn't fully emerge in the film, and does not come across as a sympathetic and charismatic personality that viewers will care for.

It doesn't help that Tang Wei looks like she's play-acting in the scenes where Xiao Hong is supposed to be in dire straits, whether financial or psychological.

An ambitious film that covers a lot of ground, The Golden Era's 179-minute running time and its many complications test the audience's endurance.

It's an emotionally distanced effort rather than an involving drama which showcases its protagonist's humanity.

The Golden Era opens on October 1