“Falling Flowers,” Huo Jianqi’s biopic about left-wing Chinese novelist Xiao Hong, charts her struggle against patriarchal feudalism, dire poverty, unwanted pregnancies and Japanese invasion, only to conclude that writing was just an attempt to take her mind off “disappointing lovelives.” Although resplendently shot and elegantly appointed, this fusty melodrama of romanticized destitution and tormented love recounts events without exploring the mind of an intellectual woman of her time. Though it may appeal to auds with a cultural bent, the film is too staid and dated to bloom in any commercial outlets.
Yi Fuhai and Su Xiaowei’s screenplay reflects a bias toward the tragic aspects of Xiao Hong’s life rather than her achievements as a revolutionary female writer who railed against class inequality and oppression of women. The story is bookended by scenes of her last days in 1941 Hong Kong, to which she escaped from the war-torn mainland, only to see the British colony fall to the Japanese. Her husband, Duanmu Hongliang (Wang Renjun), has disappeared, and the only one by her side as she succumbs to fatal illness is adoring young writer Luo Binji (Zhang Bo).
The film then flashes back to Hulan, a rural community in Dongbei province where Hong (Song Jia), born Zhang Naiying, grew up in a conservative landowning family. Fighting for the right to an education and against her arranged marriage to rich playboy Wang, she runs away to Beijing in 1931, only to shack up reluctantly with Wang in a boarding house in the provincial city of Harbin. In 1929, pregnant and abandoned by her fiance, she meets journalist Xiao Jun (Huang Jue), who becomes her soulmate and co-author.
The two lovers drift through eight cities as they move from north to south, fleeing Japanese invaders. Some of these cities are depicted with impressively precise period detail and ambience, interspersed with beautiful if gratuitous shots of surrounding scenery. Most scenes, however, are set inside rooming houses and other temporary lodgings that underscore the chaos of the era, as well as of Hong and Jun’s relationship.
Despite leaden pacing and stilted dialogue, there are some scenes that effectively depict Hong’s joy when absorbed in her writing; her first flush of self-confidence, stemming from the mentorship of literary giant Lu Xun during a brief spell in Shanghai, drives the film’s most upbeat and relevant passage. However, any positive image of female intellectuals is dissipated by the film’s ludicrous comparisons of Hong to Ophelia, repped by dolorous images of her floating on a bed of flowers like John Everett Millais’ painting. Song conveys the sturdy build, open heart and unyielding nature characteristic of northeastern women; she also dominates in passionate exchanges with a string of less powerfully portrayed male thesps. Tech credits are polished, especially the lush lensing and production design that viewers have come to expect from the helmer of “A Time to Love” and “The Postman in the Mountains.” Disappointingly, despite the writer’s celebrated depictions of the vast, sweeping Manchurian countryside, nature is not an integrated visual component, except a few splendid shots of the snow-covered fields and icy river at the end.