Saturday Fiction (2019)

Effortlessly mounted and conceptually strong, Lou Ye’s latest starring Gong Li is a dreamlike, meta-layered tale of espionage as the Allies attempt to one-up the Japanese in WWII Shanghai.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,302

Dir. Lou Ye
2019 | China | Drama | 126 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin, English, French & Japanese
NC16 (passed clean) for sexual violence

Cast: Gong Li, Mark Chao, Joe Odagiri
Plot: Set in Shanghai in 1941, the film follows an actress who is working undercover gathering intelligence for the Allies, while starring in a new play.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
International Sales: Wild Bunch

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Espionage; Theatre; Role-Playing
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: The Projector
Spoilers: No

Gong Li stars as Yu Jin in Lou Ye’s long-delayed Saturday Fiction, a work that should pique the interest of cinephiles who have been following one of Mainland China’s most interesting contemporary filmmakers since his breakthrough work, Suzhou River (2000). 

Effortlessly mounted, Saturday Fiction is solid, and part of the reason comes from Lou’s almost chameleon-like ability in creating an immersive and playful piece of cinema. 

Yu Jin is a famous actress who visits Shanghai to perform in a stage play called ‘Saturday Fiction’, yet unbeknownst to many, she is a spy for the Allies as the Japanese are about to launch an offensive in the city. 

Straddling between the performative aspect of the stage (we see the behind-the-scenes of production work), and the intrigue of intelligence work, Lou’s film adopts a highly-layered meta construct where dangerous real-life stakes confront the ‘fiction’ of art. 

“This is the last role I will play.”

From the start, through long takes featuring rehearsals, Lou already showcases his sleight-of-hand and his team’s strong technical capability. 

Such is the seamlessness, notably through camerawork, blocking and strategic use of diegetic sound, that the film becomes a slippery exercise in deconstructing physical, psychological and performative realities that build with escalating tension. 

Gong is magnetic as always, but here she is more restrained than usual, though she puts in a physical performance particularly in the action-packed climax, an extended set-piece rendered with the mastery of light and shadow. 

A thought-provoking work about the nature of role-playing, deception and patriotism, Saturday Fiction is also an unconventional take on the WWII espionage genre.

Grade: A-


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