Golden Era, The (2014)
Director: Ann Hui
Cast: Tang Wei, Feng Shaofeng, Wang Zhiwen, Hao Lei
Plot: The life story of Xiao Hong, one of China's most famous essayists and novelists, who reflected the progressive thinking not frequently seen during the 1930s.
Genre: Biography / Drama / Romance
Rating: PG13 for scene of intimacy.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Don't be afraid of taking on this 3-hour biographical film about the famous Chinese writer Xiao Hong. The length gives her life story a good measure of scope, insight and grace. While it isn't especially enlightening, and may feel every bit of its 177 minutes, the film does provide an exquisite experience through the re-creation of the 1930s in all of its visual and textural splendour.
It is a very beautiful film, shot by the acclaimed cinematographer Wang Yu (Suzhou River, 2000), whose work here is extraordinary. Some of the landscape shots evoke a strong sense of nostalgia, sometimes even of spectacle. An astounding sequence sees a town flooded with muddy waters, as actress Tang Wei playing a pregnant Xiao Hong climbs out of her bedroom window to board a small wooden boat to deliver her baby.
In other scenes, director Ann Hui romanticizes the period setting, costumes and architecture. Through Xiao Hong's story and her romantic relationship and eventual marriage to another famous writer Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng), Hui finds a window back to that long-gone era.
Hui's direction is elegant and unobtrusive; there's a sense of history, of the flow of time, and of turbulent times ahead – both the changing political landscape and the looming World War II. However, the focus of The Golden Era is on Xiao Hong, who in this film, feels larger than life, and at certain points in the film, even seemingly transcending history and politics. Such is Tang Wei's superb performance that she carries the film's ambitiousness and dramatic weight almost wholly on her shoulders.
Hui's liberal use of the 'breaking of fourth wall technique', where supporting characters talk directly to the camera when introducing another chapter of the subject's life, often which they are involved in, takes a bit getting used to. While I feel it is extraneous and at times awkward, for better or worse, it brings a sort of documentary immediacy to the film. It didn't work for me that well, though I appreciate its intended effect.
With The Golden Era. Hui continues to show that she is one of Chinese cinema's most important female directors after her critically-acclaimed A Simple Life (2011) won an astonishing five awards at the Venice Film Festival.
Verdict: A poetically-told 3-hour long account of the life story of famous Chinese writer Xiao Hong with sumptuous visuals and elegant direction.
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