If you have time to attend one movie in the next two days, make it Ann Hui’s The Golden Era, which screens again at Showplace Icon tonight and tomorrow. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Hui is one of the most important living Hong Kong filmmakers and a trailblazing female auteur, having worked in nearly every major HK genre since she started directing 35 years ago. In Golden Era, Hui contemplates another trailblazing female artist, Xiao Hong, a key figure in China’s modernist art movement of the 1930s. Xiao’s autobiographical fiction broached subjects that few other Chinese authors had written about before, like life under the Japanese occupation and the plight of peasant women in northern China. She also defied traditional gender dynamics throughout her life, running away from home at 20 to escape an arranged marriage and maintaining a large degree of independence from the men she did marry. Before her death in 1942 at the age of 30, Xiao would author a half-dozen books (most of which have become classics in China), work with the Communist Party, and achieve celebrity status for her nonconformist lifestyle. The Golden Era runs three hours, but Xiao’s life is so rich that one can easily imagine the film being much longer.
As it is, Golden Era provides a worthy introduction to Xiao. (I knew nothing about her before seeing the film yesterday, but now I look forward to reading her work.) That’s not to say that the film feels like a history lesson, however, as Hui avoids the big picture generalizations one expects from star-driven biopics. It’s an intimate film that looks at transformative personal relationships to consider historic upheaval in miniature. By Hollywood standards, the action moves slowly. Hui doesn’t orchestrate scenes to illustrate historical developments or build to some discrete character revelation—she lets her subjects interact at their own pace, then steps back to observe what makes them unique. Every significant exchange in Golden Era registers as infinitely complex, the culmination of years of experience and thought, yet the emotions are always legible, thanks to Hui’s generous, Renoiresque handling of actors. (The film features remarkably few emotional climaxes—Hui so vividly suggests the tensions between characters that explicit outpourings are unnecessary.)
Some viewers likely will be reminded of Warren Beatty’s Reds, another epic about left-leaning writers getting swept up by revolutionary movements. In fact Hui often breaks up the action, much like Beatty did, with direct-camera addresses that remind us of our temporal distance from the material. But where Beatty incorporated interviews he conducted with real people while making the film, Hui has her actors speak to us in character about what they will do after the events of the narrative take place. It’s a fanciful device, but a purposeful one, conveying how writers transform their lives into stories even as they’re living them. Where so many other directors of biopics succumb to the temptation of historical spectacle, Hui keeps her focus trained firmly on her characters’ inner lives—which, after all, is where writers make their most lasting contributions to history.