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Review: ‘The Golden Era’ a ‘Reds'-like tale of Chinese novelist Xiao Hong

Tang Wei in "The Golden Era."
Tang Wei in “The Golden Era.”
(China Lion)

With its politically charged milieu, stormy love story and focus on intellectual circles, the biographical drama “The Golden Era” brings to mind “Reds” — although compared with Warren Beatty’s grand-scale portrait of American leftists, Hong Kong’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar is set on slow simmer.

The brief life of novelist Xiao Hong is a tale of professional success and personal turmoil. It unfolds against the upheavals of 1930s China, as the Nationalists and Communists face off and the Japanese wage war.

Xiao is played with understated ferocity by Tang Wei (“Lust, Caution”). After a scandalous affair leaves her destitute and endangered, she finds salvation and community among writers. Those connections shape the film, yet they remain at a remove.

Actors portraying editors and writers who knew Xiao speak directly to the viewer, delivering narration within scenes that combines testimony and conjecture. The point is that much of Xiao’s life — or any artist’s, really — remains unknown. Working from a screenplay by Li Qiang, veteran director Ann Hui handles the fourth-wall-breaking transitions smoothly, but the device remains just that.

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With and without the fellow writer (Feng Shaofeng) who becomes her great love and her bane, her creative partner and professional rival, Xiao lives an itinerant life. Moments of powerful immediacy sustain the story, key among them Xiao’s startlingly frank, self-aware wedding speech to her “bourgeois” groom (an affecting Yawen Zhu).

Though it hasn’t the sweep to be greater than the sum of its parts, the movie offers an absorbing mix of melodrama and historical detail. If nothing else, it will draw viewers to the work of Xiao, who defied official doctrine to describe the world she experienced.

“The Golden Era.”

No MPAA rating.

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In Mandarin and Cantonese with Chinese and English subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours, 59 minutes.

Playing: AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, Monterey Park; AMC Puente Hills 20, City of Industry.


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