Lou Ye’s drama “Saturday Fiction” is a top-notch thriller, and perhaps its ambitions explain the quibbling response it received. It played at the 2019 New York Film Festival, received absurdly mixed reviews, and is only releasing now. It deals with historical issues of enduring significance while symbolically addressing current politics and culture, and it does so with a bold style that connects the film’s past and present concerns. The style itself is part of his political audacity.
It takes place in Shanghai, the first week of December 1941, as the attack on Pearl Harbor approaches. China was already occupied by Japan, but the British and French sectors of the city, or so-called concessions, remained free. On Monday, December 1, a famous actress named Jean Yu (Gong Li) returns to town with much fanfare, apparently to appear in a play. But those in the know understand that she returned hoping to free her ex-husband, Ni Zeren (Zhang Songwen), from the custody of Japanese authorities, who have him under arrest.
Lou’s 2006 film “Summer Palace”, one of the few Chinese films to dramatize the Tiananmen Square massacre, led the Chinese government to ban him from making films for five years. This politically divisive work is also a passionate and symbolic repudiation of the country’s one-party communist regime. In “Saturday Fiction,” Lou also relies on an overtly political story to hint at other political themes – and he does so in methods that are as aesthetically exciting as they are clever. The film begins in a theater in the French Concession, with a rehearsal for the play (entitled “Saturday Fiction”) in which Jean is to perform. The rehearsal takes place on a set that looks like a nightclub, with tables and a bar. The play’s young director, Tan Na (Mark Chao), calls for action; jazz musicians start playing, patrons start dancing, and amidst the general action, a couple emerges: a woman, played by Jean Yu, and a young man meet and discuss a strike and a demonstration in a factory – events in which she is suspected of being involved. Another man bursts in, a fight ensues, and the action spills out into a maze of hallways and passageways that seem offstage. But the camera follows the actors there as if the chaos is still part of the play – and maybe it is.
This opening scene, hectic and exciting, is also a proclamation that looks like a manifesto. Lou might as well stand in front of the screen and explain to viewers that what appears to be mere fiction, Saturday or otherwise, is an integral part of their current and ongoing reality, even if it takes place outside of their purview. . spectators (or citizens). The implications are bold. The two hours of drama that follow are a frenetic thriller of espionage and infiltration, the use and abuse of art by authorities whose apparent tolerance masks monstrous shenanigans, the manipulation of the judicial system for political purposes, the pervasive terror of surveillance and infiltration that darkens and poisons personal relationships, and the all-encompassing threat of politics on a global scale that threatens to extinguish the last glimmer of hope for freedom .
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The film’s characters include Saul Speyer (Tom Wlaschiha), the terse and unofficial manager of the luxury hotel where Jean is staying; presumably a Jewish refugee from Vienna, he is involved in an elaborate plan to monitor hotel guests. Saul’s friend Frédéric Hubert (Pascal Greggory), owner of a bookstore and, apparently, Jean’s ex, is also a spy trying to recruit Jean for an assignment targeting a Japanese diplomat. During this time, it was learned that Jean was trying to find her ex-husband and negotiate with the Japanese occupiers for his release, although the reason for his arrest remains shrouded in mystery. Meanwhile, the play’s producer, Mo Zhiyin (Wang Chuanjun), is a Chinese man who may be going too far to appease the Japanese authorities. And a mysterious Jean fan, Bai Mei (Huang Xiangli), insinuates herself into Jean’s rehearsals and personal life.
Bai’s machinations are reminiscent of “All About Eve”; they take place in the midst of characters and situations which, with their sharp political twists of occupation and evasion, of espionage and counter-espionage, are closer to those of “Casablanca”. Yet while the film’s drama and settings allude to studio classics, its styles and methods are at the forefront of modern cinema. “Saturday Fiction” is shot in a lustrous and seductive black-and-white palette (the cinematographer is Zeng Jian), in muted gray tones that trade the clichéd shadows of film noir, with their glaring mysteries, for the deceptive clarity of shiny faces and surfaces. Far from the poised, elegant precision of vintage Hollywood, the camera work is often hand-held, darting from face to face and rushing from place to place in probing, relentless images that sometimes feel like surveillance, sometimes like pursuit, and which, in intimate moments, embody the bonds between the film’s characters who put each other in danger and mistrust each other.
“Saturday Fiction” is a masterpiece of political paranoia, of artistic creation under a tyrannical regime, of life in times of war. The drama is unnerving, biting. I’ve seen it three times, and although I know what’s going to happen, to me the course of its events remains almost unbearably tense and anxiety-provoking. The action moves forward, day after day, like a countdown to December 7. The story is filled with action that plays on the mind and nerves, including a homosexual affair that can be a trick or blackmail scheme, savage gunfights of immense complexity, and elaborate schemes of encryption and coded conversation. It goes behind the scenes of military headquarters and communications offices, it reveals the technology of surveillance and the prevalence of surreptitious weapons, and it discusses the danger of arrest, the fear of torture and even the political abuse of medical treatment. Moreover, the physical details of the period reconstruction – costumes, setting, architecture and street life – have a finely textured and seemingly tactile authority that matches the attitude and gestures of the characters. But, above all, “Saturday Fiction” is a film for today, about the worthless promises and false commitments of tyrannical power, the dubious benevolence and blind privilege of outsiders, the role of artists and the finality art under an oppressive regime. It is a work of political cinema and personal conscience as audacious and original as current cinema can offer.