Review: 'The Golden Era' is a powerful coming-of-age story

Marcus Goh
Show Buzz

Tang Wei (Xiao Hong) and Feng Shaofeng (Xiao Jun). (Clover Films)

Marcus Goh is a former Singapore television scriptwriter. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. Tweets/Instagrams at@Optimarcusand writes at marcusgohmarcusgoh.com. The views expressed are his own.

Secret ending? No.

Running time: 178 minutes (3 hours)

"The Golden Era" is a Chinese film that depicts the life of Xiao Hong and her relationship with Xiao Jun, both of whom are very important writers in 20th century China. It is shot in a psuedo-documentary style. While it is a coming-of-age story for Xiao Hong, on a macro level it is also a story about the long and lonely journey of all writers. It stars Tang Wei (Xiao Hong), Feng Shaofeng (Xiao Jun), and Wang Zhiwen (Lu Xun). The movie is in Mandarin, with English subtitles.

I went to look up Xiao Hong and Xiao Jun after the movie. While you might not recognise their names right away, you’ll definitely recognise some of the other writers mentioned in the film, such as Lu Xun. The documentary format allows for all of the characters to acknowledge the huge impact that Xiao Hong and Xiao Jun had on them, and thus you might just find yourself searching for them on the Internet during this mammoth of a movie.

Tang Wei (Xiao Hong). (Clover Films)

So what’s great about “The Golden Era?”

Xiao Hong’s growth and characterisation

Xiao Hong, the protagonist of the film, starts as a shy, nervous writer and gradually develops into a confident author who’s not afraid of her unorthodox style or criticisms of her writing. Because this is a three hour long movie, it can afford the time to slowly and gently let us get to know Xiao Hong’s background and motivations, thus strengthening the connection we have with her right from the beginning. This results in a much more satisfying Bildungsroman, simply because we empathise with her on a deeper level.

Xiao Hong and Xiao Jun’s relationship

They cohabit for most of the movie, but never ceremonially acknowledge their relationship. Bearing in mind that this is 1930s China, it’s quite modern for that era - and it also lends an air of authenticity at the same time. Their relationship grows organically, and feels very raw and gritty. You see how they start off young, excited, and ready to take on the world, and then the slow deterioration of it through professional jealousy and spouse abuse. The movie’s not afraid to show the painful parts along with the tender moments, which is a fresh change from the stereotypical “relationships” we often see in films.

Depiction of poverty

Although this is only in the first Act, their severe poverty is compensated by the deep young love they have for each other. At one point, they don’t even have cups - they need to share a large wash basin to drink water from. This is also a set up for one of the books that Xiao Hong writes later. Their harsh living conditions are genuine and heartwarming at the same time, because it gives them a chance to display their love for each other.

Feng Shaofeng (Xiao Jun). (Clover Films)

While Xiao Hong’s characterisation was beautiful, the same can’t be said for Xiao Jun.

Xiao Jun’s superficial character

The thing about Xiao Jun is that you never really understand his motivations. The film mostly has him reacting to the various setbacks that occur. He behaves like a stereotypical chauvinist to almost everything that happens. This makes him feel more like a plot device than an actual character, which is a pity because so much screen time is wasted on this caricature of a man.

Tang Wei (Xiao Hong). (Clover Films)

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Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? Yes, if you have the time.

Should you watch this at weekday movie ticket prices? Yes.

"The Golden Era" opens in Cathay cineplexes on 16 October, 2014 (Thursday).