[Film Review] The Golden Era (2014)

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English Title: The Golden Era
Original Title: Huang jin shi dai 黄金时代
Year: 2014
Country: China, Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Director: Ann Hui 许鞍华
Writer: Li Qiang 李樯
Music: Eli Marshall
Cinematography: Wang Yu 王昱
Cast:
Tang Wei 汤唯
William Feng 冯绍峰
Wang Zhiwen 王志文
Zhu Yawen 朱亚文
Huang Xuan 黄轩
Hao Lei 郝蕾
Yuan Quan 袁泉
TT Tian 田原
Ding Jiali 丁嘉丽
Wang Qianyuan 王千源
Sha Yi 沙溢
Zu Feng 祖峰
Zhang Yi 张译
Feng Lei 冯雷
Yuan Wenkang 袁文康
Chen Yuemo 陈月末
Wang Ziyi 王紫逸
Zhang Jiayi 张嘉译
Wang Jingchun 王景春
Yang Xue 杨雪
Jiao Gang 焦刚
Zhang Bo 张博
Zhang Yao 张瑶
Edward Zhang 张鲁一
Ling Zhenghui 凌正辉
Wang Kai 王凯
Li Meng 李梦
Tang Yixin 唐艺昕
Song Ning 宋宁
Rating: 7.7/10

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Hong Kong auteure Ann Hui’s 3-hour-approaching biopic about Chinese female writer Xiao Hong (1911-1942), whose given name is Zhang Naiying 张廼瑩, opens with our heroine (Tang Wei) sternly proclaiming her own provenance (hailed from a landowning family in Heilongjiang Province of North-Eastern China) and pre-mature death (in a war-ridden Hong Kong) à la fourth-wall-breaking against a monochromatic background, a faux-documentary conceit that will be intermittently strewn into the film’s non-linear narrative, with sundry friends and acquaintances (but not the ones with whom she shares intimacy in various stages) letting on their smattering pieces of information about Xiao Hong, many facets of whose wretched life has been enveloped in mystery due to the wanting of factual records.

That is a condition the filmmakers brave with tact and discretion, for instance, the chunk of the story centers around her romance with fellow man-of-letter Xiao Jun (William Feng), they meet when Xiao Hong is pregnant and deserted by her fiancé, in debt and destitution, it is her literary flair that instigates Xiao Jun’s attraction, together they make their marks in the literature arena (predominantly riddled with anti-Japanese polemics and agitprop works at then) through their respective works (Xiao Hong published her most famous novel THE FIELD OF LIFE AND DEATH 生死场 in 1935), enjoy their transitory “golden era” when they befriend Lu Xun (Wang Zhiwen), the doyen and trailblazer in Chinese literature of its time. But relative to their ultimate break-up (even with Xiao Hong is gravid with Xiao Jun’s child), whose grounds can only be traced with assumption and interpolation, screenwriter Li Qiang discreetly hints its seed might lie in the discrepancy between their faculties (plainly, Xiao Hong is the more talented of the pair) and Xiao Jun’s latent sexism and machismo abetted by a tumultuous wartime, he opts for answering to a political calling to join the Red Army and fight against the Japanese aggressors, but for an apolitical Xiao Hong, all she hankers for is a quiet place to write, a luxury she is rarely purveyed during her ephemeral lifetime.

Therefore, Ann Hui tacitly relegates a contentious political agenda to the larger context of the Second Sino-Japanese war, and what coheres here is her compassionate threnody to a sensitive, vulnerable and talented woman, an ecrivaine-maudite who is displaced continuously, drifts around piteously and languishes in the noxious times leaving her no chance to survive. Embracing an epic scale, the film traverses from Harbin, Shanghai, Wuhan to Hong Kong, Hui faithfully recreates a tangibly bewitching period mise-en-scène with a strong showcase of its sublimely arresting cinematography and a poetic leitmotif that poignantly underscores Xiao Hong’s own wording which transmits a scattershot dispersal of pathos.

LUST, CAUTION (2007) alumna Tang Wei, brings a remarkable presence to the forefront with her physically exacting effort and internally contemplative stamina, in the face of the narrative arc’s intrinsic elision. A spate of nationally well-known thespians constitutes the supporting team laden with household names of literati, William Feng’s Xiao Jun subsists with a pertinacious verve; Zhu Yawen’s Duanmu Hongliang, Xiao Hong’s husband, is wishy-washy prima facie, but works up with a patina of hard-earned complexity during Xiao Hong’s final days; Hao Lei singles out an effulgent semblance from Ding Ling, another fêted female writer whose persecuted latter life renders her an impossible subject to green-light her own biopic; but the most award-worthy one to this reviewer’s money is Wang Zhiwen, whose sedate, civilized portray of Lu Xun, beautifully elicits an impression of dignity and earnest without seeming to be trying it at all.

There is little wonder THE GOLDEN ERA was met with an underperformed box office revenue not just because of its unusual length but also Hui’s hard-line artistic integrity, its fragmented storytelling averts a spoon-feeding expectation from those entertainment-seeking audience and it is an unalloyed art house passion project doesn’t cash in on immediate financial payback, winning BEST FILM in the Hong Kong Film Awards (5 wins including BEST DIRECTOR), and copping a BEST DIRECTOR trophy from the Golden Horse Film Awards show the veneration to the film and Hui from within the industry, which sets the film aside from the audience-pleasing churned-out products flagrantly infesting the buoyant Mainland Chinese market these years, a film is here to stay.

referential points: Ann Hui’s THE WAY WE ARE (2008, 8.6/10), Ang Lee’s LUST, CAUTION (2007, 8.8/10).

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One thought on “[Film Review] The Golden Era (2014)

  1. Pingback: [Film Review] Our Time Will Come (2017) – Cinema Omnivore

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