Biographic films are always difficult beasts to tame. Filmmakers can often be torn between integrity and dramatic licence in bringing a real life to the big screen. Ann Hui’s The Golden Era (2014) is no different; a lavish, lengthy period piece depicting the life of revered Chinese writer Xiao Hong. On one hand it strives for an impressionistic tone but this is at constant odds with a narrative attempting to encompass an entire, eventful life. The result is an oddly paced whistle-stop tour that is handsome but muddled, never quite bringing its subject into clear enough focus. Delicate character work was at the heart of the director’s superb A Simple Life (2011) and it is one of the elements vying for consideration in this film.
Wei Tang plays Xiao Hong in a formally ambitious take on a remarkable life, employing an unusual technique to convey exposition between vignettes. Fictionalised versions of Xiao’s friends, family, and colleagues speak directly to camera – as though talking heads in a documentary – to impart their own versions of her story. It’s a hit-and-miss device that never really broaches the notion of unreliable narrators that it seems designed for, and in fact confuses and undermines the story’s validity. “There should be as many types of novel as there are writers,” states Xiao when her style of writing is criticised as unrefined. It is perhaps a pertinent rebuttal to the decisions taken by Ann and screenwriter Quiang Li but, in fact, the problems come from precisely that which its subject was lauded for mastering.
Even when her technical ability is called into question, her prose is adored for its feeling and despite a clear desire to do Xiao justice, the film never emulates it. Yu Wang’s sumptuous cinematography consistently finds the most interesting angles from which to shoot the action, luxuriously capturing simple locales like a restaurant, hotel or a muddy street with the hum of activity, but it still feels inert. One narrator describes a particular event as being “another unsolved mystery in the life of Xiao Hong,” who claims that such things were all that keep her going. In this representation, though, it is the woman herself that remains frustratingly unknowable. The storytelling style serves only to exacerbate her enigmatic qualities and hold her forever at arms length from the audience. There is much to be found in the surround social commentary if one cares to scratch at it, but sadly the central hook never snags and given Xaio’s tragically short years, Ann’s The Golden Era doesn’t prove as effective as it could have been.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson