Film Review: Beguiling Spy-Thriller ‘Saturday Fiction’ Misses The Mark Despite Spellbinding Performances5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
An actress gathers intelligence for the Allies in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.
Director: Lou Ye
Cast: Gong Li, Mark Chao, Joe Odagiri
Language: English, Mandarin, Japanese, French
Runtime: 127 mins
Written by Lim Shao Yu
All the world’s a stage as theatre and reality merge in Chinese “Sixth Generation” director Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction 《兰心大剧院》, an artfully shot, monochromatic rendition of World War II espionage. Set during a tumultuous period in Chinese history, the film showcases a spellbinding performance by lead actress Gong Li, a veritable force in Asian cinema. However, in spite of Gong Li’s star power bringing a mesmerising Mata Hari-style character to life, the film is still bogged down by its rather disjointed narrative, vexingly vague dialogue, and sparse characterisation, as more could definitely be done given the film’s promising cast and subject matter.
The film’s opening sequence transports us to Shanghai in 1941 after it was occupied by the Japanese in 1937, known thereafter as the “solitary island” period. Amidst bustling fanfare and camera flashes, an elegant woman arrives at the luxurious Cathay Hotel in Shanghai’s French concession, a privileged neutral zone carved out by the Allied Forces. This woman is renowned actress Jean Yu (Gong Li), who has returned to Shanghai after being in Hong Kong under the guise of starring in her former lover Tan Na’s (Mark Chao) eponymous stage-play.
Her real agenda, as the film reveals, is to take part in a covert Allied operation to extract vital military communication codes from Japanese intelligence officer Furuya (Joe Odagiri), who is in Shanghai to disseminate classified information. Assisting her in this endeavour is fellow Allied agent Saul Speyer (Tom Wlaschiha), who also adopts the role of the Cathay Hotel’s manager as he welcomes Yu into the premises away from the prying eyes of paparazzi. Yu is acting under the orders of French spymaster Frederic Hubert (Pascal Greggory), who also plays a paternal role as he supervises Yu in her various missions.
Speaking of playing multiple roles, the film does well to highlight the duplicity and performativity of identity through the extended metaphor of the stage-play. The film constantly circles back to Tan Na’s theatrical production of Saturday Fiction, with reality and fiction seeming to meld together as events unfold throughout the film. As Yu and Na converse on stage in a mock Jazz club setting, one is made to realise the artifice of performance. What role am I playing now? How do I perform this role? These are questions that constantly occupy both the characters and audience, as the line between what is fictional and what is “real” becomes increasingly blurred.
While Yu evades capture from the authorities for being an incendiary proponent of a factory strike in the play, she must also avoid being caught by the Japanese as she gathers intelligence on them in the film’s reality. Internally, Yu’s own personal feelings for Tan Na are also intertwined with her character’s relationship to the protagonist of the stage-play as both pairs are former lovers seeking to rekindle their romance. These theatrical parallels between the world of the play and that of the film truly embody that Shakespearean adage, allowing us to view the cast as players acting out multiple narratives on multiple fronts.
But as the boundaries that delineate these narrative levels collapse, certain audiences may find this merging of play and filmic reality confusing and difficult to follow. The rather disjointed plotlines can also be tough for audiences to parse. The film’s main plot and sub-plots seem more like disparate strands rather than an intricately woven fabric, as the constant cutting and scene-switching make it hard for one to stitch the various plotlines together. Moreover, in the film’s blood-soaked final act, how several narrative strands meet an abrupt end leaves audiences with a lack of resolution.
Unfortunately, this feeling of lack carries over to the script and characters as well. As much as good scripts should show and not tell, there is a lot of intentional withholding of information that results in a frustratingly perplexing viewing experience. A certain amount of suspense is needed to keep the wheels of a spy-thriller turning, but the ride grinds to a halt when viewers are unable to discern the character’s elusive motives.
This glaring flaw is encapsulated by protagonist Jean Yu herself. Despite Gong Li’s dazzling allure on screen, a viewer’s perception of Yu is marred by the script’s insistence that she remains a mysterious and inscrutable “box of secrets”. With only smatterings of background information provided by the supporting cast and little insight into Yu’s thoughts, there is little for audiences to grasp in attempts to understand or relate to the character. As for the rest of the cast ― from the meek but affectionate Tan Na, to the earnest reporter Bai Mei (Huang Xiangli), to the obsequious and lascivious producer Mo Zhiyin (Wang Chuanjun) ― they are not given enough development and exposure for audiences to be sufficiently invested in them.
Whilst Gong Li’s charm remains unblemished, Ye’s film could definitely have done more in terms of plot and character development to keep audiences hooked to an otherwise beautifully shot tale of cloak-and-dagger intrigue. In spite of the frenetic firestorm of bullets that marked the film’s climax, Saturday Fiction ultimately still misses the mark.
Saturday Fiction opens tomorrow in cinemas islandwide.