​'Saturday Fiction': An ambitious but pure art film

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, October 15, 2021
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In "Saturday Fiction," director Lou Ye presents a black-and-white art house film disguised as a spy thriller. His experimental approach is a work of pure film art, which creates a complicated and ambitious puzzle of free will for movie fans to unpack and explore.

Actress Gong Li in a still from the film "Saturday Fiction." [Photo courtesy of Joy Pictures]

"It's our responsibility and dream as filmmakers to make a movie as ultimate and pure as it can be. If you love movies, you will love 'Saturday Fiction'," said Gong Li, the world-famous Chinese actress who stars in the film. In her opinion, "Saturday Fiction" is the biggest, best and most ambitious production ever from director Lou Ye, adding, "Such perfect purity is rare in the film market nowadays."

Inspired by the novels "Death in Shanghai" by Chinese writer Hong Ying and "Shanghai" by Japanese author Yokomitsu Riichi, the film is set in Shanghai in 1941, when all but the city's foreign concessions were occupied by the Japanese. The film tells the story of actress Jean Yu (Gong Li), who returns to the city to star in a play called "Saturday Fiction" directed by her former lover. However, her real identity is a spy. 

But the audience is left guessing about her true aim, from freeing her ex-husband, gathering intelligence for the Allies, to escaping from war with her lover. As she embarks on her mission, it becomes ever more difficult to distinguish friends from undercover agents. Things start to spiral out of control, and Jean finds herself enveloped in a web of mistrust, questioning whether or not to reveal what she has learned about the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor.

The film requires viewers to wrack their brains to figure out what exactly is going on. Lou Ye adopts a metafictional approach to directing, whereby sometimes the audience will find themselves immersed in the film's story, and sometimes in the story of the play-within-the-film. When the curtain comes down, the audience is still left wondering by the open ending of the film that keeps up an intense and uneasy pace. 

The director opted to use a freer way to film the actors on set. He asked them to improvise the dialogue and behave as they wish when immersing themselves in the characters. This left the actors with complete freedom, but also significant uncertainty and challenges. 

Mark Chao, who plays the theater director and Jean's ex-lover, said it was a dream making the film. However, he admitted to feeling a little unsure about what to do after being granted so much freedom. "But the director cared about, respected and protected us, he wanted us to feel safe and creative, and he wanted something particularly real from us, without any scripted performance."

Lou Ye loved the idea of shuttling back and forth between stories and reality, and explained that the film examines the destinies of different people during a complex time when the world was in crisis. To make it more real and unique, the film has no music score at all.

Cast and crew of "Saturday Fiction" pose for photos at the film's premiere in the Peace Hotel on The Bund in Shanghai, also one of its filming locations, Oct. 12, 2021. [Photo courtesy of Joy Pictures]

"Every film contains the messages and expressions of its creators, production team and actors. I just hoped to capture the cast's emotions and reactions during filming," Lou said. "As for how to interpret the film, everyone has their own way of thinking – that's not under the control of a director."

The most interesting part, he said, is that the film provides different perspectives, different presentations, and different attitudes about history.

After being delayed for nearly two years, "Saturday Fiction" finally receives a nationwide release in China on Oct. 15. Back in 2019, the film was nominated for the Golden Lion Award at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. It was also selected as the closing film for the recently concluded 11th Beijing International Film Festival.

For Gong Li, the film pays tribute to Chinese women and to Chinese cinema. "It's unique in its creative approach while also employing commercial elements such as spies and action scenes. It also perfectly integrates the Chinese and foreign cast members to let them all perform in the film so harmoniously -- better than any other films. This is not a commercial piece of entertainment; this is what a real movie looks like."

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