Chinese director Lou Ye's Venice competition film stars Gong Li as a famous actress in 1941 Shanghai.
"All the world’s a stage," as Jacques so memorably says in As You Like It, and this world very much includes the 1941 Shanghai depicted in Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction (Lan Xin Da Ju Yuan). It tells the story of famous actress Jean Yu — portrayed by arguably the most famous of all Chinese actresses, Gong Li — who ostensibly returns to the French Concession in Shanghai to be directed by a former lover in a play called Saturday Fiction at the Lyceum Theater (the film’s Chinese title). But is she acting only onstage?
Her ex-husband has been jailed by the Japanese, who have been occupying the non-foreign-held parts of Shanghai since 1937, and rumor has it that Yu has returned to try to free him. Meanwhile a French, father-like figure wants to use the actress as a spy in a city where everyone has a hidden agenda, no one can be trusted and people still want to go to the theater.
Set over the course of the first week of December 1941, right before the U.S. officially entered World War II, this moody, black-and-white period piece always intrigues, even if it only intermittently catches fire. It bowed in Venice in competition and will next screen in Toronto and at the New York Film Festival.
The (fictional) Chinese star Jean Yu (Gong) has traveled from Hong Kong to Shanghai’s French Concession, where she is staying in the plush Cathay Hotel run by Saul Speyer (Tom Wlaschiha, Jaqen H’ghar from Games of Thrones). She’s in town to rehearse a play directed by a former lover (Zhang Songwen) who’s convinced she has come back to work with him. In the drama, she plays a woman, dressed as a Western man à la Marlene Dietrich, pretending to be someone else (the play-within-the-film was inspired Japanese New Sensation School novelist Yokomitsu Riichi’s 1928 Shanghai, about Japanese expats in 1925 China).
Even in the early going, the idea that not everything might be what it seems is strongly suggested. People all have more than one role to fulfill, creating a sense of layered and sometimes false identities that simultaneously coexist. (The fact that Gong was cast as a very famous Chinese actress reinforces this idea on a meta level.) A character like Bai Yunshang (Huang Xiangli), for example, presents herself to Jean as an innocent, if somewhat pushy, fan and a well-connected writer. But cine-literate audiences won’t need that long to recognize that she’s basically Eve Harrington with a black bob, especially when she starts sitting in on rehearsals and miraculously remembers the lines.
And maybe that’s not even the end of her web of deceit. Is she really just a wannabe actress posing as a fan, or is she working for one of the Chinese factions or the Japanese? Things certainly don’t look reassuring during a chat in a car with producer Mo Zhiyin (Wang Chuanjun) who, with his round glasses, oversize fur coat and fedora looks like he’s ready for the 1941 equivalent of a music video by Boyz II Men.
The script was inspired by the novel Death in Shanghai by female author Hong Ying. It was adapted by distaff producer and screenwriter Ma Yingli, who also penned Lou Ye’s controversial Summer Palace, which got him into trouble with the Chinese authorities, and his recent The Shadow Play. The most enjoyable aspect of Saturday Fiction is easily its hall-of-mirrors approach to the spy genre, where each character might have one or more hidden agendas and they all have roles to play.
Gong’s character clearly has got the most roles to perform. She is not only the actress playing the role of somebody pretending to be someone else but also, in her own life, as a former lover and wife, an adoptive daughter of sorts, an accomplice of powerful government agents and a spy who stumbles upon some shocking revelations because of a passing resemblance to the late Japanese wife of a Nipponese intelligence officer (Joe Odagiri).
Lou obviously enjoys all the genre elements on display, such as the constant rain, the period clothes and the violent shootouts. But despite an evident pleasure in luxuriating in surface matters, he depicts the puzzle aspect of the narrative — the trying to figure out who is playing whom and who is being played — with a rather detached eye. Because everybody is trying to hedge their bets and come out alive at the end, even if some clearly won’t, there is a sense that showing true emotions could be dangerous and should be avoided. This means that even though the story constantly intrigues because of its twists and revelations, its emotional pulse is finally quite low.
This is not a sweltering spy romance à la Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which was set in Shanghai just a few months after this story. Neither does Lou give us even a hint of his steamier previous work, such as the fiery lovemaking in Summer Palace or the bottled-up longing that might explode into intemperate intercourse in Spring Fever. Saturday Fiction, seemingly made with approval from the Chinese censors, finally feels like a rather demure genre yarn. Sex scenes, of course, aren’t always a necessity, but in this story, where everyone is so guarded, a few moments of naked abandon could have offered a glimpse of the most basic needs and thus most basic humanity of the characters. But the obligation to conform to Chinese standards — there is no rating system, so all movies need to be suitable for all ages — seems to have robbed this film of something of its beating heart.
Thank God, then, for Gong. The actress was discovered by and has played her most famous roles for Fifth Generation director Zhang Yimou (The Story of Qiu Ju, Raise the Red Lantern). But she’s equally at home in front of the camera of Lou, a Sixth Generation filmmaker who knows how to fuse together Gong's star power and that of his lead character (much like Stanley Kwan did with Maggie Cheung in Center Stage, in which she played actress Ruan Lingyu). The full extent of Yu’s emotional life might never be fully clear, but the actress knows how to imbue tiny moments with surprisingly deep feelings. There’s an instant in the hotel lobby in which Yu tells Speyer to simply "take care," nothing more. But Gong’s posture, look and delivery elevate this parting greeting to the level of a Greek tragedy. This is a woman who knows what is coming and who knows that she has no time for long speeches — but that her words still matter. Several of these intense instances manage to elevate the character of Jean Yu through the sheer emotional force of Gong’s performance.
Cinematographer Zeng Jian’s fuliginous black-and-white footage is mostly handheld, which imbues the film with a modern touch not always directly associated with the genre. Production designer Zhong Cheng works well in tandem with Zeng’s cinematography, and both have a little meta fun with the central notion that appearances may be deceiving. The stage set for Yu’s play, for example, looks too large and complex, with its various rooms and angles, for scenery that can be seen from only one side. But it’s perfect for a film shot with a mobile camera on that same stage.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Qianyi Times, Yingfilms, Bai An Films, Tianyu Movie & TV, Zhuoran Films, UEP, Qianyiyuan, Fanyu Media
Cast: Gong Li, Mark Chao, Joe Odagiri, Pascal Greggory, Tom Wlaschiha, Huang Xiangli, Ayumu Nakajima, Wang Chuanjun, Zhang Songwen
Director: Lou Ye
Screenwriter: Ma Yingli
Based on previous works by Hong Ying and Yokomitsu Riichi
Producers: Ma Yingli, Chang Jihong, Lou Ye, Dong Peiwen, Wu Yi, Zhang Jin, Huang Xin, Li Xinyue
Cinematographer: Zeng Jian
Production designer: Zhong Cheng
Costume designer: Linlin May
Editors: Lou Ye, Feng Shan Yu Lin
Sales: Wild Bunch/CAA
In Chinese, English, Japanese, French, German