Acclaimed director Ann Hui talks to Arthur Tam about
The Golden Era, a lush biopic of the pioneering Chinese writer Xiao Hong
Ann Hui On-Wah is one of Hong Kong’s greatest directors, renowned for tackling humanitarian issues with finesse and cinematic style. Since the late 1970s, Hui’s candid, socially conscious films have at times proven too controversial to be screened. In 1983, her now-iconic film Boat People, which depicts the struggles of a newly liberated Vietnam, was banned in Mainland China and Taiwan and taken out of distribution in her native Hong Kong.
Her 2011 film A Simple Life gained international praise, winning its star Deanie Ip a Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival. Now Hui’s back with her most expansive film to date, The Golden Era is a biopic of the trailblazing Chinese writer Xiao Hong, played by Tang Wei (best known as Wong Chia-chi in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution). The film follows Hong and her literary peers from the 1920s to the 1940s as they strive to publish work that reflects the rebellious zeitgeist in war-ridden China. It’s already been chosen as the closing film at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
We sit down with Hui to discuss her sprawling, epic approach.
What inspired you to document the life of icon Xiao Hong?
I read about her life in the ’70s and I thought it was a very good story: she was cast in and out of different hospitals before the Japanese occupation, and she died within a few days [of her release]. I read her novels in the ’70s, but back then I didn’t like them very much. Thirty years later, I re-read [them] all. This time, I felt they were fantastic as I truly understood them – probably because I have improved myself.
Was it difficult trying to discover the truth behind Hong’s dramatic backstory?
When it comes to scriptwriting for autobiographical films, we will never know the [whole] truth. The Golden Era’s script is based on the writer’s own thinly disguised autobiographical novels, what others have written about her and her friends’ accounts. That’s as close to the truth as we can get.
How significant is the historical setting to the film?
We tried to be accurate even if [the scene] was through the characters’ [subjective] experience, but we didn’t shoot any piece of objective historical analysis.
What was the chemistry like between you and Tang Wei while shooting this film?
I think after the filming we have come to know each other much better. I really like her because she doesn’t pretend and she’s totally dedicated.
How would you describe the process of putting this film together?
I was so stressed that I felt like I was in a coma during the entire five months of filming this movie. After the process, I dare not think back on the experience.
Was it strenuous because of the time it took?
No, the longest [film I shot] was ten months long, but I felt more relaxed making that film, unlike this one. I felt so tense and nervous.
What made you feel so stressed when making The Golden Era?
I can’t really describe how I feel in words now. If I could tell you what the feeling I’m trying to convey is, I wouldn’t need to shoot the movie. The film is good simply because it expresses something that can’t be expressed by words.
Is there anything that you want the audience to take away from this film?
From some of the film critics who have seen the movie, the reception was so diverse and different. And that’s not excluding criticisms or negative views, which I think is the best possible reaction.
Do you usually read what other people write about your work?
If I come across [reviews], I read them. If it’s a negative comment and the writer is right, I will listen – and if it’s a good comment and the writer is right, I’ll be really happy. If it’s a good comment but it’s not what I’ve set out to do, I will still accept it. I don’t jump if people criticise me on what I do. This is one thing that I’m proud of!
Do you think we’ll see another ‘golden era’ in Hong Kong film?
I think the present situation in Hong Kong is good, though it seems depressing. But the present moment is a very good time for the arts. [Even though I am] 67, I actually don’t get along with people born between the 60s and 70s because I think they’re very conservative and always want to be safe. On the other hand, I think the post-80s and post-90s generations are very adventurous. I somehow appreciate the younger generation more because they dare to go with what they want in their lives. I’m definitely hopeful.
The Golden Era is on general release from Wednesday 1 October.