World War II and its surrounding years have seen all sorts of filmic representation on the big screen, from blood-and-guts, boots-on-the-ground soldiering to the devastation of Nazi genocide. The most traumatic event in 20th century Western society naturally lends itself to high drama, making Saturday Fiction‘s early-’40s Shanghai an inherently interesting setting.
Returning to the city following a messy altercation, Jean Ye (international favorite Gong Li) is an acclaimed actress whose return to Shanghai in 1941 for her performance in a play is a masquerade for her spy work for the Allied Forces. With the Japanese overtaking China, Shanghai remains a tenuous hub of international presences; the “Solitary Island” period of the city’s history featured French and British embassies and populations. Ye, reconnecting with her former lover and director (Mark Chao) comes up against Japanese General Furuyama (Joe Odagiri) and his cadre of Imperial Japanese lieutenants and forces in an effort to stop a major, devastating historic event. No pressure.
Director: Lou Ye
Release date: October 8, 2019 (NYFF)
Saturday Fiction presents its timeline day by day, in December of 1941, mere days before the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Our context as a 21st century audience allows us to know the stakes from the start, though for much of its first half Saturday Fiction meanders a bit too much, despite its perpetual motion.
There’s a lack of exposition and at times jarring editing between Jean Ye performing in her stage performance and her own dealings as a saboteur, I think even an attentive viewer could be forgiven for some confusion. But perhaps it comes with the title?
“Saturday fiction” calls to mind pulp. A rollicking adventure, either printed on thick paper to be read for a dime or one half of a double-bill featuring all sorts of stick-it-to-the-enemy escapades. Director Lou Ye’s intentions with his title and the presence of an actor and stage production at the center of his film is no doubt to raise some level of ambiguity to reality and performance, history and the stories lost to time, yet it doesn’t feel like it amounts to much. There’s a lack of thrust to the film’s action, despite the stakes and setting.
A scene relatively early in the film’s 125 minutes takes place during a celebratory dinner for the actors and play producers, wherein a drunken producer stumbles into an adjacent compartment, disturbing a small circle of Japanese officers dining next door. Uh-oh.
What should be a tense moment, the Japanese becoming increasingly violent and oppressive of the Chinese, never felt like more than a bump along Saturday Fiction‘s road. It doesn’t help that, despite good performances all around, the characters never felt like much more than roles dictated to us by stereotype. By the film’s end Jean Ye makes some major decisions (one of which left me and my screening companions scratching our heads, though a possible answer leads to a satisfactory and interesting conclusion; more on that later), yet she’s simply “the hero” because we’ve sort of had the story framed by her perspective. General Furuyama, the target of the film’s spy operations, is a bit of a blank slate, despite efforts to flesh his character out with a tragic backstory. Although if we’re left a little miffed at how dry Saturday Fiction can feel at first, hold on until things start to ramp up.
It almost makes me feel guilty to say, as if once the bullets start flying my interest sparks, but when Saturday Fiction‘s second half, a bullet ballet of dominoes falling, starts Lou’s direction becomes apparent and something to be praised.
Besides finally granting some clarity to just what the heck’s been going on, you can sort of realize and appreciate that Saturday Fiction just has some damn good action set pieces. Lou stages some beautifully atmospheric moments, with the black and white cinematography detailing debris and gun smoke kicking up in the halls, and using pitch-black darkness to great effect. There’s a particularly moment where a long hallway is cast into darkness, the building’s power failing, only for the lights to spark on, revealing two assailants. And it never feels as if the stylish action leans into John Woo-esque fantasy, despite its visual appeal. We’re grounded throughout.
And though the aesthetic shines in the framing of our action, on the whole we have what is far from an ugly film. Saturday Fiction‘s cinematography might not particularly swoop in to save the day with “wallpaper visuals” for its visual style, but instead uses its handheld, sparse photography to add a level of casualness to its historical setting. Shanghai, its denizens dressed and driving cars looking straight out of a storage warehouse, looks good. Beyond the great costumes and sets, Saturday Fiction really sounds good too. The crumple of paper or patter of rain; cigarette lighters flicking, or the dull pop of gunfire. The film boasts impressive sound design.
So once we’re in our endgame, Saturday Fiction‘s literal action satisfies in terms of pure adrenaline and style, but also affirming our suspicions and doubts garnered during the film’s first half. It’s pretty clear who’s on whose side when they’re shooting at each other, right? Yet for all the purpose put into pre-Pearl Harbor snooping, I’ll spoil outright that this isn’t revisionist history. Yet the reasons our plot to stop the plot are foiled remain of interest, though are themselves shrouded in some level of mystery. I’ve come to an answer that I’m satisfied with, though Saturday Fiction‘s layers of double agents and schemes could have flown further over my head at times than even I realized.
But it’s all about the bottom line ultimately, right? And in that respect, I enjoyed Lou Ye’s period thriller quite a bit. It suffers from a bit of an empty first half, though isn’t particularly unenjoyable in that respect. It becomes something worthwhile and interesting when the ball starts rolling and the plans begin to align (or fall apart), and the complexities of making great decisions under pressure fall under our scrutiny. Truth might at times be stranger than fiction, but it’s the stories we tell ourselves to move forward that might be the most interesting ones of all.