Ann Hui, Busan’s Asian Filmmaker of the Year, talks to Liz Shackleton about her Venice closing film, The Golden Era, Hong Kong cinema and her history with BIFF.

An unconventional biopic of the early 20th century writer Xiao Hong, Ann Hui’s The Golden Era premiered as the closing film of this year’s Venice film festival and opened in China on October 1. It is screening as a gala presentation at BIFF, where Hui is being honoured as Asian Filmmaker of the Year.

Tang Wei plays Xiao Hong, whose short and tragic life is portrayed through her writings and the perspectives of her friends and contemporaries, including fellow writers Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng) and Duanmu Hongliang (Zhu Yawen). Hui directed from a script by Li Qiang, who also wrote Hui’s The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt.

The film is produced by China’s Stellar Mega Films and China Film Company, Hong Kong’s Edko Films and mainland partners Cheerland Film & TV Culture and Spring Film & TV Culture. Edko Films is handling international sales.

Why choose Xiao Hong as the subject of a biopic?

Sometimes you meet a subject and don’t know why you want to do it – there must be a number of reasons but it’s not really rational. I became interested in her life when I first read about her dying in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. It made me think how terrible it must have been during that chaos to be carted from one hospital to another. Then I went to read her work and didn’t like it very much. I didn’t connect to it because at that time, in the ‘70s, I didn’t know China well and hadn’t been to Manchuria.

Then in 2004, when I first met Li Qiang, he said he wanted to do a story about two women and we were both interested in Xiao Hong and another female writer, Ding Ling, who is in the film as well. We did a lot of research, but when I met Li Qiang again, he said this subject won’t pass censorship because Ding Ling had some trouble with the Communist authorities in the ‘50s and her status is still suspect. Then in 2007, after finishing The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt, the producers of that film, Cheerland, suggested we do the life of Xiao Hong. So we went back to her. 

And did you also go back to her writing?

Yes and I think it’s much better now – I’ve improved so I can appreciate her writing.

What is Xiao Hong’s significance to Chinese literature?

She would be somebody like Emily Bronte or Herman Melville – focused on the elemental forces of nature and very poetic. She only wrote three or four novels and the structure is very non-traditional. It’s a bit like montage; separate pieces joined together by themes and images. So when I first read her, I was thinking: where’s the story? Where’s the character? Her novels are very poetic and her poetry is very prosaic. But she doesn’t translate well, or so far I haven’t found any translation that fully incorporates what she wrote.

Your film also has a non-traditional structure. Why did you choose to tell her life story in this way?

The idea started with Li Qiang, and I think he was right, but it led us into all kinds of difficulties because it’s a thought that is difficult to put into practice. He said that most biographies are very subjective, as the filmmaker gives their subject a kind of personal interpretation. So he said, let’s try to do one that is based on either Xiao Hong’s writings about herself, or the other writers she knew. They all wrote about each other. And she was writing this thinly disguised autobiography in the form of novels. We used all that material in the film.

Then lots of people who watched the film said that there’s no writing of hers in it. We didn’t say in voice-overs, ‘this is Xiao Hong’s writing’. But it was actually based on her writing.

So you’re presenting a multi-faceted view of her from different perspectives?

Yes, we did this and then said, leave it to the audience – see what they think. And the reaction was as various as there are different kinds of people, which is good but scary. We didn’t put this across strongly, but we knew that we wanted people to have a positive impression of her; we didn’t want to blacken her and her contemporaries. But how positive an impression of her and in what way, I don’t know. Some people would say she is tragic, not because of war or her own vicissitudes, but because of her relationships with men. They interpret it in this way.

What did you think of the critical reception in Venice?

I think we might have made it a little shorter. We might have had a bit more of an idea about what we wanted the audience to feel. Not too many, but a few more indicators. But we feel now that it was a terrific experimentation, and if we cut it shorter and make it more accessible, it will lesson the experimentation aspect of it. You might as well be hanged for a sheep than for a lamb!

Screening it in film festivals is not very advantageous actually, because it’s a long film and usually people are very tired in festivals. But I’m not making excuses because people didn’t seem to be bored; they were courteous and a bit puzzled.

How did you find working with Tang Wei?

We worked together very well, although maybe she feels that the script or myself hasn’t given her enough latitude and scope for the highs and lows of the feelings. But she agreed to do what I asked her to do, which is just kind of put herself in that character. Just be that character, which is very difficult because you don’t score points with that kind of acting. Maybe she wanted to go deeper or reach higher notes.

Was it difficult raising the budget?

We took the script back to Hong Kong when Li Qiang had finished it, but couldn’t find the money after going around. He was also trying back in China and we only managed it after three years. When we were looking for the money, people were saying that they didn’t want to go to school or attend literary class. But I think now the film has been seen, and there are different opinions, people are more curious. They want to go and see what people are quarelling about.

Your last film, A Simple Life, won best actress at Venice and was also a box office success. Did you feel pressure to repeat the success with your next film?

Of course yes. But we already knew we were doing The Golden Era. A Simple Life was released in March and Qin Hong [CEO of Stellar Megamedia] had decided to invest in this film the previous December. He could have thought it was worth a try because of the prize in Venice. That also helped us in getting actors and actresses.

I wanted to ask Tang Wei way before we got the money, but at that time she was still banned. So we said we would wait for her. It turned out that she waited for us instead. So these are good things. But all the expectation is a big strain.

A Simple Life was a strong Hong Kong-set story – do you think it heralded a revival of Hong Kong film?

I think it was a rare fluke and combination of elements. It was mostly due to Andy Lau, who forced through the project and found good distribution, which attracted the other stars to join.

So where do think Hong Kong cinema is heading?

I think we have to start all over again with a new generation. There have always been signs of life but its not easy for now as we don’t have money or audience – everything has moved to the mainland. But now it’s not such a big deal if you want to make movies – you can shoot on DV and can still make it to the big screen if you’re very good.

How do you feel about being honoured at Busan? Do you have a history with the festival?

The first time I went to Busan was in 1997 when Eighteen Springs closed the festival. I was very impressed because it had a really good selection and the audience was great. Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish was screened and Chris Doyle was asked to be DoP on a Korean film. You could already see that the festival had a great future. I’ve been back several times since.