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NPR Arts & Life

'The Golden Era' Follows A Path From Northern China To Tokyo

Shaofeng Feng and Wei Tang in <em>The Golden Era.</em>
Shaofeng Feng and Wei Tang in <em>The Golden Era.</em>

Director Ann Hui's The Golden Era tells of a female novelist and poet who lived in, as the Chinese curse puts it, "interesting times": from 1911 to 1942. Simultaneously sweeping and intimate, the three-hour drama overcomes many of the usual difficulties of depicting writers on screen. But it can't finesse one major impediment for Western viewers: Few of them know anything of its heroine, Xiao Hong.

That was the pen name of Zhang Naiying, who was born in northern China. At 20, she ran away from an arranged marriage, accompanied by the man she then loved — a cousin who was already married. It was not the last time Xiao (played here by Lust, Caution beauty Wei Tang) would defy the mores of a patriarchal society, with less than triumphant results.

The movie recounts two out-of-wedlock pregnancies, a turbulent on-and-off relationship with fellow writer Xiao Jun (Shaofeng Feng) and a marriage of (in)convenience with another author, timid Duanmu (Yawen Zhu). There was even an episode when Xiao was threatened with being sold to a brothel because she couldn't pay a hotel bill.

She was rescued by a flood, one of several incidents where cataclysmic mass events are viewed through the lens of Xiao's individual experience. While another acclaimed female author, Ding Lin (Lei Hao), trades her pen for a gun, Xiao largely avoids politics. She lives under Japanese occupation in Harbin and later sojourns in Tokyo. It's from there that she writes, with just a hint of irony, "Isn't this my golden era?"

Only in Hong Kong, where she's a TB patient ejected from a hospital seized by the newly arrived Japanese military, does the war become personal. She dies in a makeshift clinic, just 30 years old.

There's a whiff of autobiography to this tale of a female upstart's artistic success, since Hui is the only female director to distinguish herself in the boys club of Hong King cinema. She moved away from the industry's bread-and-butter fare — gangster, slapstick and kung fu flicks — toward more realistic subjects. Unlike Xiao, she hasn't ignored politics; among her most acclaimed movies are Boat People, about Vietnamese refugees, and Ordinary Heroes, a study of Hong Kong activists.

Although shot in widescreen, The Golden Era relies on tightly framed interiors, in part for practical reasons: the places Xiao lived have been almost completely transformed since her time. (Hui's Tokyo is principally a single room and a lot of cherry blossoms.) Often warmly illuminated by candles, the scenes are elegantly composed, with deft transitions between medium shots and close-ups. When not in slinky motion, the camera is often positioned overhead, or outside a room, to provide views that feel both privileged and detached.

Hui and scripter Qiang Li use voiceover excerpts from Xiao's writings, including her letters, and sometimes employ them as catalysts for a flashback or flash-forward. The effect is elegantly literary, while the fictionalized interviews with Xiao's friends and colleagues, who speak directly to the camera, simulate documentary.

The Golden Era is being distributed in the U.S. by China Lion, a company that usually deals in more mainstream action or romantic movies. Although it's beautifully made and deftly performed — and is Hong Kong's entry for the 2015 foreign-film Oscar — the movie probably won't reach a lot of non-Mandarin speakers. But it should sell a few English-language translations of Xiao's The Field of Life and Death, which was surely one of Hui's goals for this heartfelt project.

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