“I can’t tell if anyone will read my stuff later. But I’m quite sure that the gossip about me will go on and on,” laments writer Xioa Hong (Wei Tang) on her deathbed. Ironically, despite pointedly registering that complaint, The Golden Era does just what she dreads. Shunting her writing to the side to focus on her tragic love life and early death, Ann Hui’s film reduces an intriguing sounding woman—one who, by the film’s own account, made a name for herself as a writer without conforming to conventional mores, either about how to write or how to behave—to a Camille-like figure of pity, picturesquely tubercular, ill-used by men, and admirable mainly for the gallantry with which she faced an avalanche of bad luck.
As the film’s deliberate pace, in which long silences frequently precede or follow a line of dialogue, makes its nearly three-hour running time feel even longer, we hear Xiao’s story told at least as much as we see it unfold. Actors playing her brother, lovers, and friends address the camera in turn, narrating what they know of her story. While Wei is lively and magnetic, making it all but impossible not to empathize with her character when she’s on screen, the third-person speculation often makes Xiao’s story feel as distant as a conversation witnessed from far enough away that you can only make out a person’s gestures and not their words. That effect is magnified when the narrators acknowledge that they have no way of knowing why someone did something important, such as abandoning a pregnant Xiao.
The impression we’re left with is of a badly used young beauty condemned to make her own way through the world while longing for love. Abandoned by her first lover, who leaves her with a hotel bill so high the owner threatens to sell her to a brothel to pay it off, she takes up with another who soon cheats on her, gives her a black eye, and undermines her as a writer. Both men leave her pregnant and she loses both babies, the first to adoption and the second to death. At least she followed her heart into those affairs, but when she marries a man she doesn’t love or respect because she’s convinced she can do no better as an unmarried pregnant woman (a startlingly frank speech she gives to her wedding guests provides rare insight into the thoughts behind her actions), she comes off as an unalloyed victim. Meanwhile, the ghost of her death haunts all but the earliest scenes, her cough getting progressively worse until the painfully protracted final segment that details her last days.
This may play very differently to fans of her work, but for those of us without that backdrop of knowledge, the few excerpts we hear of her writing are too uninspiring to spark much interest, and the story of her life—at least, as it’s told here—is pretty thin gruel. Every so often, the steely spine that presumably supported Xiao through her journey as a self-defined, sexually liberated, financially independent woman in the turbulent 1930s and early ’40s shines through, like when she insists on camping out on the floor of a friend’s office after fleeing a Japanese attack, despite the friend’s objections and her own hugely pregnant belly. But the film spends far too little time on the insights, observations, and emotions that are the stuff of literature and far too much on love affairs, betrayals and other fodder for idle chitchat.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 20—March 5.