After sitting through all 179 minutes of this new Chinese release one question occupied my mind: how did a director of the calibre of Ann Hui become involved in such a road wreck of a movie? Obviously the people behind this mainland production were seeking the artistic cachet that Hui’s name would give the film. Instead, The Golden Era resembles the leaden propaganda of the 2009 pic The Founding of a Republic.
The film recounts the short and often unhappy life of the Chinese author Xiao Hong (aka. Zhang Naiying, and played here by Tang Wei), a young Northern Chinese woman who lived through the turmoil of 1930s China and died in Hong Kong in 1942. Her literary output was sparse and for more than forty years after her death her writing was still banned by China’s communist government.
Only recently have her short stories and novels become available to the Chinese public again. The Golden Era looks to be an attempt to deify this obscure literary talent. But with such a dud film, China’s cultural gatekeepers have managed to crucify her memory, not glorify it.
As a person Xiao Hong is shown to be self-absorbed, shallow and manipulative (which could describe many writers). Her on-and-off relationship with fellow writer Xiao Jun (William Feng Shaofeng) is poisoned by professional jealousy and domestic abuse. There’s also an undeveloped story thread which alludes to her possibly committing infanticide. There should be enough here for a decent biopic – and there is – it’s just the ruinous way in which the material is presented.
The Golden Era is devoid of any real dramatic pace and the story development can only be described as glacial, as we follow Xiao Hong traveling aimlessly around China. There seem to be endless scenes of writers talking about how tough it is to be a writer. The dialogue is mostly vapid and extraneous as the following shows: “your hair has grown too long — you should get it cut.” Numerous characters are introduced with banal voice-overs, like “Mr Lu had two kinds of cigarettes, one expensive and one cheap.” Sino Shakespeare this ain’t! And the Woody Allen-like comments to camera can be amusing, mostly for their ineptness.
Chinese actress Tang Wei (Lust Caution, Wu Xia) at first appears to be badly miscast in the main role. But I couldn’t imagine any actor being able to overcome such a problematic script and the film’s morbid pace.
There is a veiled criticism of Xiao Hong’s refusal to join the Chinese Communist Party during the 1930s. Through a local cadre, the author is told that if she joined the party she would lead a more comfortable life as a writer. (I have recently read Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang, and I would seriously doubt this scenario.)
On the credit side, the film has been evocatively shot by cinematographer Yu Wang (Suzhou River, Lost in Beijing), and in the movie’s framing sequence we see Xiao Hong’s rural childhood as a magical time in an idyllic place.
If you manage to watch the whole film, you will have noted a short scene which exposes what a total misnomer the movie’s English title is. In a way, though, this is in keeping with the rest of the film’s inadequacies.