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Review: In Saturday Fiction, History Itself Is the Realization of Performance

The hegemony of history is rigid, but Lou Ye is still able to disrupt it in the form of its representation.

Sam C. Mac



Saturday Fiction
Photo: United Entertainment Partners

With Saturday Fiction, divisive Chinese director Lou Ye applies a distinctly modern film vernacular to an anachronistic period setting. As in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, the digital image, disjunctive editing, and a roving handheld camera serve to tether the filmmaking of the present to more remote events of the past, lending immediacy to the action. In Public Enemies, this served to frame what we’re watching as a construct of media—history bleeding into myth and articulated through a modern-day understanding of celebrity. But in this film, the artifice also exists to complement his World War II spy narrative’s preoccupation with different modes of performativity.

Saturday Fiction’s plot is imposing and hard to parse, but after Lou reveals his meta-fiction conceit, the pieces start slowly falling into place: It’s 1941, and famous Chinese actress Jean Yu (Gong Li), after some time spent working in Hong Kong, has just returned to Shanghai, ostensibly to star opposite her former lover, Tan Na (Mark Chao), in a theatrical production, also titled Saturday Fiction, that Tan is directing for the Lyceum Theater. But as is implied by this setting—the “solitary island” period during the establishment of the Shanghai French Concession, six days before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor—there are ulterior motives to Yu’s return, and the split nature of her role as actress and spy is reified through Lou’s blurring of the line between his in-film theatrical fiction and the roleplay of espionage.

Lou has tilled this earth before—namely, in 2003’s extraordinary Purple Butterfly, itself a Mannian action opus set just slightly later than the events depicted in Saturday Fiction, during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. But instead of the steely red and blue color scheme of Purple Butterfly, Lou has opted here for a stark black-and-white palette, a choice that further enriches Saturday Fiction’s provocative mode of aesthetic engagement, as the gritty digital images captured by Lou’s woozy cinematography are put in dialogue with the more stable, classicist compositions typically found in the cinema of the period in which this film is set. This all serves as a way of amplifying the apparent identity crisis of Saturday Fiction’s central character, a woman negotiating between a range of different allegiances: to her foster father, Frederic (Pascal Greggory), an agent of the French intelligence; to an ex-husband (Zhang Songwen) who’s being detained by Japanese authorities; and to Tan, who’s entirely unaware of Yu’s life as a spy, even though, ironically, he’s cast her in his play in the role of a spy.

If some of this sounds convoluted, that’s partly by design: As with Lou’s other film from this year, The Shadow Play, the focus isn’t on crafting a tidy, easily comprehensible narrative, but rather reveling in the chaos of a historical moment in China that saw many different cultural and political influences converge to set the stage for dramatic changes in the country. In The Shadow Play, the chosen moment was the turn of this millennium, when the corruption of Chinese private and government enterprise alike set in motion a chain of lurid events that well represented the dissolution of faith in China’s postsocialist economic prosperity. With Saturday Fiction, Lou and his regular collaborator Ma Yingli, whose screenplay was adapted from Chinese author Hong Ying’s novel Death in Shanghai, locate a manifestation of the intersectional political ambitions and mounting conflicts of a world on the brink of war.

The theatrical framing of Saturday Fiction serves to further the impression of history itself as the realization of a performance, as the various maneuverings of the narrative proper are lent no formal distinction from scenes of Yu and Tan’s rehearsal, and, in fact, many are choreographed and shot with a stage-appropriate approach to blocking. The hegemony of history is rigid, the narrative specifics unchanging, but Lou is still able to disrupt it in the form of its representation. The last third of Saturday Fiction sees the dense plot of the film falling away in favor of a succession of intense shootouts, sequences that find the instability of Lou’s formal and narrative fictions finally combusting into an inevitable expression of violence. And at the center of all this is screen legend Gong Li, who, in her first film role in three years, gradually undergoes a transformation from passive observer into gun-wielding firebrand, resulting in the most truly iconic performance that the actress has delivered in decades.

The final moments of Saturday Fiction frame Yu’s actions as representative of the greater ideal at the center of Lou’s filmography—a body of work that’s always commented on the present moment, even when it’s explicitly about the past. Just as The Shadow Play’s depiction of workers on strike during China’s urbanization period and Summer Palace’s portrayal of student protestors revolting in Tiananmen Square captured resistance at critical moments in the nation’s history, the explosion of unrest at the end of Saturday Fiction comes as a response to prescribed Chinese identity, a conundrum that plagues the republic even today.

Cast: Gong Li, Mark Chao, Pascal Greggory, Huang Xiangli, Ayumu Nakajima, Joe Odagiri Director: Lou Ye Screenwriter: Ma Yingli Running Time: 126 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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