Depicting a golden time?

Shanghai’s 1930s literary scene is subject of new movie


Novel role: Tang Wei stars as writer Xiao Hong in Golden Era

Actress Tang Wei is best known both in China and internationally for her racy role in Lee Ang’s Lust, Caution. The erotic thriller, which is based on a short story by Eileen Chang, saw Tang banned from television screens in China for more than a year.

Tang’s most recent role is less controversial. In Golden Era, she plays Xiao Hong, who is known as one of the “four talented women” of Chinese literature (the other three are Lu Yin, Sanmao and the aforementioned Chang).

The film is set in early-1930s Manchuria, and tells the story of the 20 year-old Xiao, who flees home to escape an abusive father and an arranged marriage. Fiercely independent, Xiao sets out to forge a new life in the city of Harbin with her lover. He soon leaves her, along with an unwanted pregnancy and a crushing hotel room debt, but Xiao meets the writer Xiao Jun (played by Feng Shaofeng). The two fall in love, sharing a love of literature, and move together to Shanghai. There they meet Lu Xun, an important figure in modern Chinese literature (see WiC44). Later the couple separate and she flees to Hong Kong when the Japanese invade. Xiao, by now destitute and homeless, dies of tuberculosis at the age of 31. But despite her early death, Xiao left a wealth of literary achievement in novels, essays, poems and plays. Hulanhe zhuan (Tales of Hulan River) and Shengsi chang (The Field of Life and Death) are her best-known works, both of which focus on rural life.

“Xiao’s writing is out of the heart instead of being politically influenced,” Zhang Haining, vice president at the Xiao Hong Research Association, told the Global Times. “Her writing maintained its independence and standpoint about society, which was quite rare in that period.”

Ann Hui, the film’s director, says that she has long been fascinated by Xiao. “I have considered making a film on the life of Xiao Hong for decades because she was a very good writer and it’s worth making a film out of her life. However, it was very difficult to find funding and also a screenwriter,” she told the BBC.

But Hui seems to have convinced Victor Koo, chairman and chief executive of Youku Tudou, China’s largest video hosting website, to fund the project. The company’s film division, Heyi Film, is one of the backers of Golden Era. It says it is also funding The Taking of Tiger Mountain, a 3D epic, which is scheduled for release later this year. In fact, Koo told the Financial Times that Youku Tudou helped to produce eight feature films in 2013 that enjoyed a combined box office take of $2 billion.

His internet group has advantages over more the more traditional studios, Koo believes, because it has access to huge amounts of customer data (the premise is that filmmakers can shape plot lines and characterisations by feeding from insights drawn from web comments and criticism). Additionally, online giants like Youku Tudou talk up their ability to promote the films to their massive audiences online

“All of this helps the success rate and reduces the risks normally associated with film investment. That means for an internet company working in films, your success rate is going to be much higher,” Koo says.

Armed with a generous budget, Hui and her crew are said to have consulted more than 100 historical sources and studied 10,000 historical photographs to prepare for filming, which lasted five months and spanned six locations, says Sina, a portal.

The film took three-and-a-half years to finish and Hui hired Li Qiang, screenwriter for last year’s surprise hit So Young, in the hope of appealing to a younger audience.

It remains to be seen whether Youku Tudou’s instincts about harnessing the online audience means that Golden Era is going to be a blockbuster. It opens in cinemas on October 1, or National Day (it was also selected to close the Venice Film Festival this month). But it will hope to do better than another Xiao Hong-inspired biopic, which tanked at the box office a year ago. Falling Flowers was even dropped by some multiplex theatres after audiences complained that Song Jia, the lead actress, didn’t look like Xiao, and that the plot was too caught up with her relationships rather than her achievements.

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