The whens, wheres and wherefores of Chinese writer Xiao Hong’s brief but influential life are exhaustively considered in Ann Hui’s ambitious, lustrously mounted biopic “The Golden Era” — it’s the life itself that’s missing. Seemingly caught between a daring impressionistic approach and a pedantic recital of dates and locations, this three-hour endurance test is marked by sincere adoration of its subject, played with gleaming intelligence by Tang Wei. Aside from the superlatives lavished upon her by a rotating panel of narrators, however, outsiders will glean little of Xiao Hong’s literary identity or legacy from the stifling, sometimes confusing proceedings. Whether or not domestic biz proves golden when the pic opens in China on Oct. 1, a substantial re-edit may be required before international distribution for this year’s oddly esoteric choice of Venice closer can be deemed feasible. 

Hui’s 2011 feature, “A Simple Life,” which also unspooled on the Lido, was a consummate example of the softly textured, low-key humanism that has become the director’s signature virtue. Though pockets of that sensitivity endure in Hui’s most expansive (and, presumably, expensive) project to date, the sprawling historical biopic format — which also grazes on complex political developments in China between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the Second Sino-Japanese War — isn’t the best vessel for her delicacy or humor. Not that Li Qiang’s screenplay is guilty of the oppressively linear, Wikipedia-style structuring that plagues the genre: Its commendably tricky aim is to capture Xiao Hong through the shifting, often unreliable recollections of her friends and peers, openly acknowledging where the truth is ambiguous or elusive.

It’s a sophisticated storytelling gambit that falters in the area of characterization. No one voice is particularly distinct from another within the film’s large ensemble of supporting figures (most of them fellow authors and editors) doubling as direct-to-camera narrators — few of whom impart personal perspective on the woman they knew so much as keep viewers updated as to her frequent movements and back-and-forth changes in romantic status. Xiao Hong herself, meanwhile, never comes into focus either as icon or individual: The titles of her works are listed, but their content and style are rarely evoked, while the drama defines her mainly by her relationships with men. After a critical scene in which the heroine gives her newborn up for adoption, an associate informs us: “A year later, she wrote ‘The Foundling,’ which told us how she felt.” It’s one thing to tell and not show, but “The Golden Era” often only alludes to telling, taking for granted the audience’s working knowledge of the subject and her oeuvre.

The facts, at least, are presented with somewhat teacherly clarity, as we cover the essentials of Xiao Hong’s birth in Manchuria in 1911 (under the official name Zhang Naiying), an unhappy childhood riven with paternal abuse, her short-lived elopement to Peking at age 20, and her eventual settlement in Harbin, where she begins her writing career with the assistance of newspaper editor and writer Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng). They swiftly become lovers, setting in motion the star-crossed, oft-interrupted five-year affair that the film intends as its narrative spine — though the turbulent ebb and flow of their personal and professional partnership is rendered sudsy and repetitive by the film’s over-polite writing and limited confidence in the actors’ physical suggestiveness.

The on-off rhythms of this ultimately toxic relationship combine with the escalating incursions of the Japanese imperial army in China to buffet Xiao Hong from one region to the next over the course of the film’s episodic but one-note narrative. Qingdao, Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongqing, Hong Kong and Tokyo all host her for a stretch: The differing cultural, geographic and economic textures of these locations are meticulously realized in Zhao Hai’s lavish period production design, which is an asset to viewers who might otherwise be struggling to keep pace with the protagonist’s restless but hardly action-packed journey. “All I want is a peaceful situation to write in,” she bleats. Though that appears to be on the cards when she meets and marries fellow writer Duanmu Hongliang (Zhu Yawen) in 1938, one needn’t be well versed in her history to guess that tubercular tragedy — that most beloved of leading-lady demises — is afoot. (Xiao Hong has already eerily informed us, via her own bit of fourth-wall-breaking narration at the film’s outset, that she died in 1942.)

Tang, who hasn’t been given enough roles of this magnitude since her stunning breakthrough in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” seven years ago, brings what cunning and nuance she can to a script that celebrates the subject’s literary trailblazing without affording her much agency in her own story. (“In dealing with her problems, she was far too emotional, as women always are,” one female acquaintance observes; some might accuse the film of occasionally regarding her with similar condescension.) The actress’s perceptive, secretive gaze does more than the script’s blanket statements to sell viewers on Xiao Hong’s brilliance.

Though Manda Wai’s undisciplined editing can take much of the blame for the film’s narrative shortcomings, tech credits are otherwise handsomely understated, with even Eli Marshall’s score resisting a ripe opportunity for  excess romanticism. Man Lim-Chung’s artfully tailored costuming lends the subject a modest glamour carefully calibrated to her shifting means; Wang Yu’s lensing is stately and burnished, without excessively gilding the era.

Venice Film Review: ‘The Golden Era’

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (closer, noncompeting), Sept. 5, 2014. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Masters.) Running time: <strong>178 MIN. </strong>(Original title: "Huang jin shi dai")

  • Production: (China-Hong Kong) A Stellar Megamedia production. (International sales: Edko Films, Hong Kong.) Produced by Qin Hong. Executive producers, Yuan Mei, Li Qiang.
  • Crew: Directed by Ann Hui. Screenplay, Li Qiang. Camera (color, widescreen), Wang Yu; editor, Manda Wai; music, Eli Marshall; production designer, Zhao Hai; costume designer, Man Lim-Chung; sound (Dolby Digital), Tu Duu-Chih; visual effects, Illumina; assistant director, Thomas Chow; casting, Cheng Jie.
  • With: Tang Wei, Feng Shaofeng, Wang Zhiwen, Zhu Yawen, Huang Xuan, Hao Lei, Tuan Quan, TT Tian, Ding Jiali, Wang Qianyuan, Sha Yi, Zu Feng, Zhang Yi, Feng Lei, Yuan Wenkang, Chen Yuemo, Wang Ziyi, Zhang Jiayi, Yang Xue, Ling Zhenghui. (Mandarin dialogue)