A filmmaker perhaps too prolific for his own good, Lou Ye takes his latest spin ‘round the festival circuit with Saturday Fiction, a movie stuffed to bursting with sumptuous movie-movie atmosphere, the swoony charge of ideas about art, love, and espionage, and good-enough storytelling solutions. 

Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai over the first seven days of December, 1941, Saturday Fiction begins with the heralded return of Jean Yu (Gong Li) after several years in Hong Kong. She’s back to star in a new play about love and underground intrigue opposite its director, her one-time lover; their intimate dialogue scenes, both at the Lyceum Theater’s barroom set and Shanghai’s shipyard bar, are tantalizing autobiographical, and delivered in whispers that definitely won’t make it for the cheap seats. The line between acting and reality blurs further as Lou enters (and moves beyond) the play’s barroom set with his snaking handheld camera. Nor is this Jean’s only masquerade: Her ex-husband is in prison for his political activities, and rumors swirl around Jean’s own intelligence work. She checks into the Cathay Hotel, in Shanghai’s unoccupied French Concession, where the phone lines are tapped, and reconnects with an old friend who seems part handler, part father-figure (Pascal Greggory, sensually sad).

Why is she back? Who does she love? Saturday Fiction has more than a passing resemblance to Lou’s earlier Purple Butterfly (2003), with its slightly dizzied story-structure; its plot in which love is thwarted by the harshness of idealism and the deceptions of spying until a climactic act of self-sacrifice; and its heavily romantic early-WWII production design—in Saturday Fiction’s black-and-white Shanghai, rain pours constantly over fedora brims and onto the already glossy long black cars from which the characters trail each other. And as in Lou’s harder-to-see, electric Suzhou River (2000), there are ghosts of Vertigo: in the doppelganger-like stalker-fan who follows Jean around, and the (undercooked) honey-trap plot cooked up around teary Japanese officer (Joe Odagiri).

Jean Yu is a diva role to which Gong Li is well-suited, one calling on her glamorous, rarified intensity, and metatextual resonance as the star lives and dies with each of her many roles. This also includes the role of action-movie star in the film’s final movement, an act-spanning, multistage gunfight engulfing the entire cast in the crack and pop of small-arms fire, as Lou essentially tries to shoot his way out of the story. When Gong, using a pistol, kills an assailant who has a machine gun, he drops his weapon and she picks it up, like a character in a first-person shooter; by the end of Saturday Fiction, all the film’s recurrent locations have been transformed into the different levels of a video game.

Saturday Fiction screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

See our complete TIFF 2019 coverage.

Grade: B

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