Directed by Ann Hui
Produced by Qin Hong and Li Qiang
Written by Li Qiang
Cast: Tang Wei, Feng Shaofeng, Wang Zhiwen and Zhu Yawen
The tragic story of the famed Chinese writer: Xiao Hong. Her birth name is actually Zhang Naiying. Not that I’m admitting I’m familiar with her and her work before watching this film. The Golden Era is a biopic of Xiao Hong’s life. And it spans nearly 3 hours. Making a biopic is no easy feat, from my experience too many biopics run the risk of idealizing their subjects too much. Considering, when you’re making films about great people. After all, I imagine greatness is a hard concept to make tangible. Xiao Hong is an interesting figure. She isn’t big enough and politically important enough that the ruling Communist party depends on her reputation. Xiao Hong died actually even before Communist China came into existence. So Golden Era avoids censorship from the overbearing Communist party, or at least I hope so. Golden Era is a biopic that lacks the usual overblown embellishment. Xiao Hong’s life story is a deeply personal one. The very first moments of the film is Xiao stating the date of her birth and death directly to the audience. That’s one heck of a mood setter.
Xiao is born to a father who doesn’t give much affection, so she is always in need of affection in her life; a flaw of her that opens her to unhealthy romantic relationships. It might sound misogynistic to say, but Xiao Hong’s life is probably defined by the men in her life. Or at the very least, the Golden Era gives this impression by focusing so much time on her romantic relationships. For one, Xiao Hong trying to escape the marriage arranged by her cold father sets her life to one of a drifter. A lifestyle she can’t appear to stop as she is always readily moving place to place.
Her frugal existence is plagued by the constant need of money, emotional problems, insecurities and factors beyond her control like war itself. It’s essentially one big ‘melodrama” dressed up with high production values with stunning cinematography to boot! And it’s a pretty compelling melodrama mostly though some of the character motivations for Xiao’s lovers need better clarification. Xiao Hong enjoys a marvelous portrayal by the actress: Tang Wei. No amount of hardship can tarnish Tang Wei’s natural beauty, so Xiao remains a luminous figure through and through.
Xiao Hong’s life hasn’t been documented the best. The narrative style is a nice reflection of this rather poor documentation. Scene transitions tend to be composed of important people in the Xiao Hong’s life-giving exposition and context. It might almost make the movie feel like a documentary if the people giving the expositions weren’t actors and the movie wasn’t so ”cinematic” in its style. After all, though, there are also scene transitions where Xiao performs a similar role by reading passages from her book. It makes the overall chronology of the film muddled, but luckily, it isn’t too confusing.
The question of a long running time brings up the question of pacing. I didn’t feel that Golden Era needed to be so long. There are a few scenes that are completely unnecessary. Examples including the following, the scene where Xiao Jun’s friends are rehearsing for a play or reenacting an event from a book. The dinner scene at Lu Xun’s home could have been shortened or cut. Half way point of the film has an abrupt shot of the vast Chinese landscape, though, the shots are beautiful, the shots go on for way too long and is out of place. Golden Era is unable to justify its unreasonable length.
That is what Golden Era is a biopic that’s tuned to be like a historical epic. As a historical epic, it is tarnished by a muddled chronology. As a biopic, it doesn’t glamorize its subject and remains sincere. But as a heartfelt drama, it is an emotional one due to the poignancy it evokes.