The dazzling Gong Li anchors a mysterious – and often mystifying – tale of intrigue in ‘Saturday Fiction’, the latest feature film from Chinese director Lou Ye. As in films like “Summer Palace” and “Purple Butterfly,” Lou sets a Hitchcockian thriller of identity and passion on the cusp of major historical events, although in “Saturday Fiction” personal and political dramas collide in particularly combustible ways.
The film is set in December 1941, on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack, in a Japanese-occupied Shanghai and crisscrossed by Allied and Axis spies. Gong plays a famous actress, Jean Yu, who has just returned to town after an absence, ostensibly to star in a play directed by her lover, Tan Na (Mark Chao).
But Jean’s true reasons remain elusive, entangled in a web of loyalties involving her ex-husband, who has been kidnapped by Japanese troops, and a paternal French diplomat who entrusts her with an espionage mission. Lou further obscures Jean’s motives with a shrewd, metafictional sleight of hand: often the film deceptively separates onstage rehearsals of Tan’s play and Jean’s offstage encounters.
Visually, the effect is one of elegant chaos. Cinematographer Zeng Jian captures a rain-soaked, period-dressed Shanghai in soft black and white, with a restless handheld camera that imparts poetry even to high-octane shootings. At the level of the story, however, the film tilts into old confusion, as Jean’s increasingly illogical actions contribute to one of history’s great disasters.
But star power is a logic in itself, and Lou has secured an unlimited supply by casting Gong as an actress spy. She conveys deep pain and desire, even when the script doesn’t, and seduces us just as effortlessly as Jean seduces her enemies.
Not judged. In Mandarin, English, Japanese and French, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. In theatres.