Chinese director brings to Venice Shanghai's struggle during wartime Japanese occupation

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A poster of "Saturday Fiction" [Image courtesy of Joy Pictures]

With the world premiere of his "Saturday Fiction" on Wednesday, Chinese director Lou Ye brought to the Venice Lido an intense story of courage, love, and war.

Running in the main selection of the festival -- and starring Chinese renowned actress Gong Li -- the movie is set in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in 1941.

It tells of Jean Yu (Gong), an iconic actress returning to Shanghai officially to take part in the play Saturday Fiction.

Yet, her true role almost immediately appears more significant than that, as the film reveals Jean Yu's wide net of various relations in the city, a dark Shanghai that, in the so-called "Isolation Island period", has become a battlefield for opposing intelligence forces.

Is she truly there to play at theater only, or has she a more dangerous mission? Is she connected with spies?

What has her former husband -- in jail for collaborating with the Japanese -- to do with all this? Is his liberation one of the protagonist's goals?

Much of this remains untold for long, as Jean Yu seems entering and exiting different lives one day after another.

As the story unfolds, the answers are to be gradually revealed by the action of the various characters -- moving through a masterful black-and-white photography -- and by the specific historical background, which is the imminence of the Japanese attack to Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7) that would unleash the Second World War in the Pacific area.

Gong Li and Mark Chao attend "Lan Xin Da Ju Yuan" (Saturday Fiction) photocall during the 76th Venice Film Festival on September 04, 2019 in Venice, Italy. [Photo/VCG]

The screenplay by Ma Yingli is inspired by the novels "Death of Shanghai" of Chinese writer Hong Ying and "Shanghai" of Yokomitsu Riichi.

Another strong feature in the movie is a strong theatrical print -- the film's Chinese title is indeed "Lyceum Theater", which was where the director actually spent time as a child while his parents were working there.

"I spent a lot of interesting times there," Lou Ye said in the presentation.

"It was where I rubbed shoulders with actors in costume and watched them play different roles, their loves and hatreds, and their separations through life or death on stage. Then I'd see them walking off-stage... leaving the theater, going back to their dull and ordinary real lives."

"It was a fantastic experience, shuttling back and forth between stories and reality. Many years later, reading 'Death of Shanghai' by Hong Ying gave me the same feeling," he explained.

History and drama permeates the whole movie, with Gong Li playing a woman that proves strong, skilled in the most different tasks, courageous, and yet filled with love.

Director Lou Ye and Gong Li attend "Lan Xin Da Ju Yuan" (Saturday Fiction) photocall during the 76th Venice Film Festival on September 04, 2019 in Venice, Italy. [Photo/VCG]

"Since the phase of the screenplay review, I have found this character extremely challenging," Gong said at the film's press conference.

"Lou Ye and I have spent about one week exploring the character's inner world, and Lou helped me understand her kind of complexity."

"That is because she is a very professional woman... but her inner world is also full of kindness. In the last scenes, for example, she reveals her ability as a killer, but she would not kill a harmless person, or an enemy that is already harmless," the actress explained.

This is the fourth time Gong Li is at the Venice Film Festival, where she was awarded the Coppa Volpi prize for Best Actress in 1992 in Golden Lion-winning "The Story of Qiu Ju" by acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

Along with Gong, the movie's main cast includes Mark Chao, Joe Odagiri, Pascal Greggory, Tom Wlaschiha, Huang Xiangli, Ayumu Nakajima, Wang Chuanjun, and Zhang Songwen.

"Saturday Fiction" is competing for the Golden Lion along with 20 other films at the 76th Venice Film Festival, running at the Lido of the lagoon city until Sept. 7.

Chinese actress Gong Li poses during a photo call for the film 'Lan Xin Da Ju Yuan (Saturday Fiction)' presented in competition at the 76th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido on September 4, 2019. [Photo/VCG]

It is to be released in China on Dec. 7, 2019, according to the production. 

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