Ann Hui’s handsome biopic reveals flashes of The Golden Era

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      Starring Tang Wei and Feng Shaofeng. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rated PG.

      Born Zhang Naiying in 1911 in the far northeast of China, future writer Xiao Hong was buffeted by family, romantic, political, creative, and health challenges in her 30 years—most of them catalogued in this handsomely shot but dramatically inert biopic, which gives us bright flashes of her golden era but precious little sense of the artist herself.

      Exposition often takes the form of colleagues and relatives addressing the camera and recalling what they knew. Well played as an adult by the gamine Tang Wei (who made a splash in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution), Xiao married young and was deserted while pregnant and penniless, in Harbin, near the Russian border. The disgrace ruined her family, but she was rescued by local newspaper editor Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng), who charmed her—according to Li Qiang’s episodic script—by asking, “Why do you live? You have plenty of reasons to kill yourself right now.”

      They began publishing short stories on their travels, attracting the attention of the intelligentsia. Hong Kong–raised director Ann Hui, who recently kept things elegantly indie in A Simple Life, spends a soggy three hours staging floods, snowstorms, scenes in period bookstores and train stations, and various theatres of battle. Viewers knowing little of Japan’s occupation of “Manchukuo” or other parts of China, or of the deadly push-pull between the Kuomintang and Mao’s Communists, will be baffled by the constant motion, which also takes our wan heroine to Tokyo in the mid ’30s, with little explanation. The rest will wonder why we don’t spend more time with the work we’re told made our TB-ridden Xiao “immortal”.

      “We all know about poverty these days, but no one writes better about it than she does,” one of her contemporaries insists. But the scant evidence, translated on-screen, comes across as ordinary observation. Another friend says, “She was a fine writer, but in dealing with her problems, she was far too emotional—as women always are.” You have to wonder who’s really asserting this cliché, and anyway, what we witness displays little emotion. The film’s a humourless litany of sorrows, in which the principal characters complain about their well-being while chain-smoking and wandering into war zones.

      This era’s value is really in the glimpses it offers of a rich literary period that rivals the usual Paris-between-the-wars stuff. But for more on that, we’ll need to read, not watch.