The Golden Era
Directed by Ann Hui
Starring Tang Wei, William Feng, Wang Zhi-Wen, Hao Lei and Tian Yuan
The story of writer Xiao Hong comes alive through memories of her great love affair, literary influence and escape from China during World War II.
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★★★½ review by MrJago on Letterboxd
Having had no knowledge of Xiao Hong and her writing this movie wasn't easy going, specially considering it's 3 hour run time. A documentary would probably have served me better but the occasional quotes did make me curious about her short stories and novels and I will try to get my hands on one.
"If the pain is in the marrow we don't worry about the flesh wounds."
★★★★★ review by Cecilia M. on Letterboxd
This was a film of seconds for me: the second work by Ann Hui I've watched (the first was Love in a Fallen City back in February) and the second time I've seen Tang Wei star as the protagonist (after her memorable turn in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution).
The Golden Era actually has some things in common with those two movies: both Lust, Caution and Love in a Fallen City were based on short stories by the famed Chinese writer Eileen Chang, and The Golden Era — although a biopic and not the adaptation of a work of fiction — is based on the life of another celebrated female Chinese writer, Xiao Hong; moreover, similarly to Love in a Fallen City, the Japanese attack on Hong Kong during the Second World War is a pivotal moment at the end of the film.
The Golden Era begins with a b/w segment in which Xiao Hong, who was born Zhang Naiying, addresses the camera directly and states her dates of birth (1911) and death (1942). If you're not familiar with Xiao's life and works — as I wasn't — this will give you a clear starting point: the young woman you have just met will die young.
Tang Wei's role in Lust, Caution required her to portray essentially two characters: a girl full of naiveté and passion, and the slightly older version of the same person, who has definitely hardened. In The Golden Era, the growth and changes of her character are more nuanced and Tang's wonderful expressiveness serves the character perfectly; Xiao is headstrong, fiery and independent until the end, but after years of hardships a certain fatigue sets in and she starts to long for some more stability in order to be able to write, a change further underscored by the end of her tempestuous relationship with Xiao Jun and her marriage to the calmer Duanmu Hongliang.
Hui's sumptious film has an epic scope: while the protagonist is Xiao Hong and her social circle has a preeminent role, her life was intertwined with China's history and the rise of the Communist Party. Between painting a detailed historical picture and focussing on the characters, however, the script sticks to the latter choice; this decision is smart as it avoids ponderousness, although it could cause some confusion for the uninformed foreign public (personally I was on much surer footing once the film reaches the mid-to-late 1930s). In general, the film's lack of sentimentalism is its greatest strength.
The metafictional interludes in which Xiao's friends break the fourth wall and talk directly to the views about her can be a little alienating at the beginning, but by the end I recognized their value both as a way to quickly move forward the narration without losing the plot's thread and as cover for the more mysterious parts of our protagonist's life.
The Golden Era is a magnificent film depicting the much too short, very tough and incredibly rich life of a woman and her group of friends during a tumultuous moment.
★★★½ review by ablackie on Letterboxd
Ann Hui's take on the biopic is honestly kind of exhilarating, despite its imposing length and shadowy subject. This interpretation of the life of ill-fated writer Xiao Hong - one of the most prominent female literary voices in twentieth century China, although an obscure figure today - combines the form of the genre with historical epic and the approach of a documentary account. Her story is told by different characters at different points in time, often via direct-to-camera address, and at one point, a character states openly that the records for one part of her life are limited, and that we can only surmise based on her later writings: a rare, candid acknowledgement by a film of its own limitations.
It is also an odyssey across a China descending into war - The Golden Era is most successful on the level of texture, although Hui avoids sweep. There are a number of marvellous, unhurried setpieces here, such as the flooding of the Songhua River in Harbin and the evacuation across the churning Yangtze in Wuhan, that evoke what life may have been like in Chinese cities in the late 20s and early 30s.
The film's most prominent flaw is that it doesn't really illuminate the link between Xiao Hong's experiences and her work. The most obvious expression of this is that the act of writing is barely visible in the film. In a sense, the problem with The Golden Era, despite a length just shy of three hours and its boldly unconventional presentation, is that it doesn't go far enough.
★★★½ review by Juan Carlos Ojano on Letterboxd
Deliberate pacing sometimes a chore, but works. Exquisite production, sweeping ambition. Justified grandiosity.
★★★½ review by Nick Stember on Letterboxd
Engaging visual spectacle of Republican era China, with some great performances. The last third drags a little though.
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