After Ye Lou was the subject of controversy regarding his previous film, “Shadow Play” (it almost didn’t the censors’ board permission to be shown at Berlinale, see the review here), he is back with another effort that recently premiered at the official competition of the 76th edition of Venice International Film Festival. It seems that he is back in mercy with his country’s cultural establishment and why shouldn’t he, since “Saturday Fiction” is a handsome spy noir set in the “Solitary Island” period of Shanghai’s history and is not even a bit controversial.
“Solitary Island” refers to the early period of Japanese occupation of the city between 1937 and 1941. The city was occupied by the Japanese army, but the British and French concessions (business and cultural institutions) maintained the widest form of autonomy. Needless to say, it made Shanghai into a major spy hub at the beginning of the World War Two.
The plot of the film, inspired by novels “Death of Shanghai” by Hong Ying and “Shanghai” by Yokomitsu Riichi, is set over the course of one week in December of 1941, just before the Pearl Harbour attack. The film, however, opens with the rehearsal of the titular play at Lyceum Theatre. The huge star of Hong Kong cinema Yu Jean (the poster actress for the Chinese 5th Generation movies Gong Li in her sensitively luminous mode) is back after the years of absence to work with her former partner actor/director Tan Na (Mark Chao) on the play. But she is a woman with multiple secrets…
Firstly, her ex-husband (Zhang Songwen) is captured by the Japanese under suspicion that he works with the resistance. Secondly, she also works for the French, personified by her father-figure Frederic (Pascal Gregory) and is on an official mission to extract some important information from the Japanese intelligence officer Furuya (Joe Odagiri) through an elaborate scheme based on her resemblance of his dead wife. Other people, including the play’s producer, the sleazy hotel manager (Tom Wlaschiha) and the obsessive fan (Huang Xiangli) will also find their place in the plot as it gets more and more complicated before the bloody, action-packed finale.
While its setting makes it a possible prequel of sorts for Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” (2007) that is set at the same place, just some months after, the story that includes love, friendship, political pressure and treason, as well as Zeng Jian’s slick black and white cinematography call the ultimate classic “Casablanca” in mind. The most intriguing aspect, the one about the impending assault on Pearl Harbour, is handled masterfully by both the screenwriter Ma Yingli and the director Ye Lou. Too bad that he did not resist the urge to finish the film in a prolonged action sequence that works quite well on its own, but breaks the rhythm and the shroud of mystery established earlier.
Acting is competent to brilliant throughout (with Gong Li, Mark Chao and Pascal Gregory as standouts), but some of the actors like Zhang Songwen and Huang Xiangli would profit from a deeper character development. But nevertheless, Ye Lou manages to keep his film intriguing for the whole of its 126 minutes of runtime.
“Saturday Fiction” is by no means a masterpiece, but it is essentially a good film and quite a pleasant viewing experience, especially in the movie theatre setting, where its shades of grey palette of colours and its sound design coloured by the almost constant rain can shine. However, it would work quite well also on the small screen as the film of choice for a quiet evening.