Dir: Lou Ye | Cast: Gong Li, Mark Chao, Joe Odagiri, Pascal Greggory, Tom Wlaschiha, Huang Xiangli, Ayumu Nakajima, Wang Chuanjun, Zhang Songwen | Drama, China 126′
Saturday Fiction is not as cool as it thinks in portraying the enigmatic life of a famous actress in 1941 Shanghai. Filmed in crisp black and white over the course of a week in December it sashays all over town in telling a shady tale of love and espionage in the Japanese-occupied Paris of the East where the legendary Jean You – played by Chinese actress Gong Li – has returned to star in her ex-lover’s titular play at the Lyceum Theatre in the French Consession. Rumours have it that Yu is back to free her ex-husband from the clutches of Japanese authorities but she soon becomes caught up with paternalistic French man whose intentions are ambiguous, as is everything else in this smokes and mirrors affair.
Lou Ye establishes the plush milieu from the rain-soaked opening scenes where the graceful and elegantly coutured Yu is speedily ushered into a palatial suite in the Cathay Hotel run by Saul Speyer (Tom Wlaschiha). Her ex-lover (Zhang Songwen) is excited to see her again and has cast her as a foxy Western vamp in a play about Japanese expats in 1920s China, inspired by Yokomitsu Riichi’s 1928 Shanghai,
Sumptuously dressed characters flit in and out of the picture, and it seems they all have various guises and motives up their silken sleeves: Bai Yunshang (Huang Xiangli), for example, is straight out of All About Eve but nobody seems to know her true identity. The play’s producer Mo Zhiyin (Wang Chuanjun) is dressed up to the nines in his round glasses and fedora – all he needs is a big cigar to channel Cecil B de Mille.
Yingli Ma’s script itself is based on female author Hong Ying’s 2005 bestseller Death in Shanghai. In the 1940s this is a place where only the lucky and plucky will survive and tell their tales of intrigue but there’s a flitting, episodic feel to the way Saturday Fiction plays out. Clearly intending to beguile us with intrigue and revelation Saturday Fiction eventually starts to drift away in a puff of style over substance, always retaining a demure coyness that lacks the torrid chaleur and dramatic heft of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which was set in Shanghai just a few months after this story. Gong is nevertheless magnificent is a bewitching performance of charm and subtlety, he facial expressions conveying all we need to know. MT
TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | 5 -15 September 2019