Playing Along
by Lindsay Brayton

NYFF 2019:
Saturday Fiction
Dir. Lou Ye, China, no distributor

It’s best to keep your wits about you while watching Lou Ye’s gorgeous and surprisingly playful latest film Saturday Fiction. Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the film begins in the middle of an onstage rehearsal. The gathered ensemble is carefully working through the complicated logistics of a scene set in a lively cafe involving dialogue, swing dancers, live music, and perfectly timed entrances. Lou places his camera in the middle of the action onstage, never retreating to the typical proscenium arch establishing shot customarily used to frame theatrical performances on screen. Instead the camera sticks tightly to the play’s author, director, and male lead, Tan Na (Mark Chao), as he simultaneously directs and acts in the scene. When Tan Na and his female lead Jean Yu (Gong Li) begin the scene’s dialogue, the actors’ voices are hushed, their performances calibrated to the subtle gestures of film acting, which works perfectly for Lou’s eavesdropping camera, but would be too delicate to affect anyone seated in the theater’s house seats. As the scene ends and Jean exits, the camera turns 180 degrees. We expect to see the theater’s blinding spotlight surrounded by the darkness of the empty theater, but instead there’s a wall. We’re suddenly no longer in the theater, but in a real cafe. At some point in the middle of the rehearsal, we stopped seeing a performance and began witnessing the real event on which the fictional scene is based. It’s a sneaky sleight of hand, one that Lou repeats throughout the film in continuously clever editing maneuvers, but this opening preamble sets the parameters for a film in which the line between fiction and reality are nearly indistinguishable.

The film makes it equally difficult to separate the present from the past. Though the audience is led to believe the opening rehearsal scene is set in November 1937, before the film jumps to December 1941, even the film’s chronology can’t always be trusted. As Saturday Fiction progresses with an increasingly thrilling pace towards the infamy of December 7, 1941, it’s clear the film is never wholly set in either time.

On December 1, 1941 Jean, now a famous stage and screen actress, is making a highly publicized return to Shanghai to appear in the play Saturday Fiction. Though Tan Na is convinced Jean’s love for both him and his play—which appears to be based on Jean and Tan Na’s real life—is the sole reason she’s returned, there are in fact a tangle of forces that have drawn her to Shanghai. Aside from Tan Na, these include an ex-husband imprisoned by Japanese forces, as well as Jean’s mercurial connection to a clandestine anti-Japanese spy operation.

As played by Gong Li, Jean returns to Shanghai every bit the movie star. Li—perhaps the most glamorously mournful woman in film—has perfected steely eyed melancholy as an international movie star in a career ranging from Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern to Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. Jean travels across the city in the backseat of a chauffeured car, stoic behind oversized sunglasses (worn even during Shanghai’s perpetual rain) and heavy winter layers shielding her from the fans and photographers waiting outside her hotel. She’s almost comically covered up throughout the film, her body often obscured by bulky winter coats, scarves covering her neck and head; even her hair obscures her, leaving only a small square of her face visible. When she is in character onstage she’s dressed in an oversized men’s button down shirt and pants complete with overalls.

Eventually, we learn she’s in Shanghai to obtain secret codes from a Japanese Navy communications officer. In a spy operation that takes its cues from Vertigo, Jean is asked to use her striking physical resemblance to the officer’s missing wife to beguile him and obtain the codes. Even though Jean is asked to use her powers of seduction, she is presented throughout the film with a surprising lack of hypersexualization. She succeeds in luring the codes out of him in a powerhouse performance without even unbuttoning her winter coat. Early in the film she is described by the film’s most abhorrent character, Mo Zhiyin, as mysterious, “like a box full of secrets.” It primes the audience for the standard femme fatale, but Lou has a sensitive and sympathetic eye for Jean. She’s mysterious only in the way that men in movies always find women mysterious, in that they can’t begin to imagine that her life may be filled with concerns that are outside their purview. A more apt word for Jean might simply be tired. She expresses the exhaustion of a woman who has been wrung dry from the emotional labor of giving too many performances onstage and off.

There’s little effort on Lou’s part to make Jean’s relationship with Tan Na believably romantic, their partnership seems more rooted in the film’s overall conceit— between real person and character, and memory and present-day reality. This blurring is evident in all of Jean’s relationships and Saturday Fiction is rich in supporting characters who enter Jean’s orbit. But it’s Jean’s relationship with a young woman named Bai Mei (Huang Xiangli) that registers as the most genuinely tender. In a relationship that has echoes of All About Eve, Bai Mei presents herself to Jean as a fan of her work, but she’s also an actress and Jean recognizes her as a fellow spy. Nevertheless Bai Mei’s possible duplicitous nature doesn’t stop Jean from tentatively embracing the young woman and the two women forge a touching, if tragically futile connection.

Lou has depicted the violence of political upheaval in his sprawling earlier films Purple Butterfly (2003) and Summer Palace (2006); in contrast Saturday Fiction feels more tightly focused. The film’s gentle rhythms—moving in and out of the past and present, reality and fiction—are building steadily toward a shocking and protracted gun battle in which the characters’ cloak-and-dagger games spin out of control and the film’s black and white cinematography is used to thrilling effect. Saturday Fiction requires attentive viewing, but the observant viewer will reap the rewards.