Xiao Hong became a patron literary saint for Chinese leftists, but she was often done wrong by her comrades, particularly those she was romantically involved with. She was one of the first to give voice to China’s peasantry, but her later work became increasingly less political, despite the wars ravaging Republican China. Her short life and problematic loves are dramatized in Ann Hui’s intimate epic The Golden Era (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Xiao never had an easy existence, despite being born into a land-owning family. Her mother died at an early age, leaving her and her protective grandfather at the mercy of her physically and emotionally abusive father. Rebelling against an arranged marriage, Xiao tried to elope with the man she thought she loved, only to find herself abandoned in a financial lurch. This pattern will repeat itself, but with subtle variations.
Soon, Xiao takes up with her colleague and savior Xiao Jun, who is initially quite taken with her beauty and talent. Yet, the latter becomes an issue when she is recognized as the superior writer. They will come together and break apart several times, while great macro-geopolitical forces sweep across China.
Like most of their milieu, the unrelated but profoundly linked Xiaos are drawn to Mao’s Reds, but for different reasons. Xiao Jun seeks to compensate for his literary failings as a revolutionary, whereas Xiao Hong feels personal loyalties to comrades such as the thoroughly radicalized Ding Ling. Of course, since Xiao announces her ultimate death right at the start of the film, her ever declining health obviously portends a suitably tragic end, but she will experience the Japanese invasion and yet another ill-fated love affair first.
Considering the politicization of Xiao’s legacy, the ideological agnosticism of Hui’s film is rather remarkable. In fact, it comes at a particularly interesting time, with students and capitalists alike taking to Hong Kong’s streets to protest for genuine democracy. Nevertheless, it has been chosen as Hong Kong’s official Academy submission for foreign language film (appropriately it will also screen next month as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series).
More than anything, Golden Era is a deeply personal woman’s story that happens to be set against a sweeping historical backdrop. In many ways, it is reminiscent of Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage, covering a similar time period and periodically using characters as third wall-breaking commentators. The film even takes on further meta-significance with the casting of Tang Wei as the “scandalous” Xiao, given the Chinese film authorities’ rumored obstructions to her career in the wake of her controversial sex scenes in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution.
Regardless, Tang perfectly balances Xiao’s delicate sensitivity and pseudo-proletarian grit. There are plenty of screen actresses who could supply her beauty, but she also credibly conveys Xiao’s intelligence. It is her film and she makes it work from start to finish. Still, Feng Shaofeng delivers some of his best work yet, bringing out real human dimensions in Xiao Jun, rather than playing him as a simple cad or a revolutionary stock figure. However, amongst the large cast of supporting characters, only Ding Jiali stands out as their stately literary benefactor, Lu Xun.
Clocking in sixty seconds under the three hour mark, Golden Era could arguably stand a bit of trim, yet the third act still feels a bit rushed. Frankly, it just seems like the dramatic spark dims when Xiao and Xiao separate. Nevertheless, they supply the guts of the film and they are definitely worth seeing. Recommended for fans of historical dramas, The Golden Era opens this Friday (10/17) in New York at the AMC Empire, via China Lion