Saturday Fiction (China, 2019) [TIFF 2019]

The prospect of Lou Ye and Gong Li working together should excite anyone who is even remotely interested in contemporary Chinese cinema. With Saturday Fiction, these two titans collaborate for the first time in a film that is far from perfect but is nonetheless a thoroughly worthwhile endeavor. This film also illustrates what is perhaps the limit when it comes to evading censorship in China when telling stories that clearly dance within overtly political issues.

Set in the midst of Shanghai during World War II, popular actress Jean Yu (Li) returns to the city for a theatrical production of a play titled ‘Saturday Fiction’. As tensions rise towards the events of the Pearl Harbor attack, Jean’s motives for returning become intertwined with her possible involvement as a spy. The play’s director Tan Na (Mark Chao) hopes to rekindle his love with Jean, and along with other members of the production, gets pulled into this world of espionage and politics. Jumping between rehearsing for the play and surviving during wartime, the film forces the audience to question the surface aesthetics of our perceived realities.

There are many things about Saturday Fiction that stand out with Zeng Jian’s cinematography certainly being one of the film’s greatest assets. It’s shot beautifully in black and white, with frequent handheld camerawork that not only flows elegantly but also communicates a sense of chaos and urgency. This is particularly noticeable during the film’s finale, when a gunfight ensues in a kinetic manner.

As expected, Li shines as the film’s mysterious protagonist, and masterfully conveys both vulnerability and confidence in a way that never seems frustrating. Her actual motives are never completely clear, but her sense of morality is never far from center stage and this really helps anchor the film’s moral bearings. Not that we needed a reminder, but given that this is Li’s first starring role since 2014’s Coming Home (I’m purposefully not including The Monkey King 2 in 2016), it is refreshing to see an acting legend back in her element. Chao is equally impressive which is a hard feat given that most of his scenes are opposite the enthralling Li.

What’s perhaps a bit of a letdown is Lou’s inability to fully comment on the state’s political situation back in 1941. Not that this reviewer is an expert on Sino-Japanese relations during World War II, but there’s a sense that the filmmakers involved were somehow holding back from a narrative standpoint. The thematic closure we get at the end of the film feels somewhat half-baked, with a lingering sense that an element of sociopolitical commentary is missing. Although the classification of conventional heroes and villains is relatively clear, a more nuanced examination of right and wrong seems necessary. And I think this would apply to all of the film’s characters, whether Chinese, Japanese or European.

It’s possible that I’m overthinking it, and my thoughts above have nothing to do with efforts to adhere to SARFT’s strict censorship rules. After all, Lou’s track record speaks against this, particularly with 2006’s Summer Palace (resulting in a 5-year ban from filmmaking in China) and 2009’s Spring Fever (which had to be registered as a Hong Kong/French co-production). But with Zhang Yimou’s One Second getting pulled from the Berlin International Film Festival line-up back in February, this sentiment certainly looms in the background.

Luckily, regardless of its slightly blunted thematic punch, Saturday Fiction still manages to impress. The emotional dynamics of the story are clearly delivered, and despite a sense of unfulfilled potential, it would be unreasonable to not deem Saturday Fiction a success. This is a welcome return for Gong Li as an actress and another reminder that Lou continues to be one of China’s most talented filmmakers.

Saturday Fiction was shown on September 7, 8 and 14 at the Toronto International Film Festival.