From 1937 to 1941, Shanghai was dubbed a “solitary island” in that, alone in China after the Japanese invasion, there were areas within it that were under international control, namely the French and British Concessions. They were, undoubtedly, teeming with spies and collaborators and double agents, but it strains credibility that they could have been anything like as fraught and riven as the French-administered enclave in the 1941 of Sixth Generation Chinese director Lou Ye’s grandiloquently incoherent misfire “Saturday Fiction.” Starring/wasting the luminous Gong Li, the black and white film strays further away from the observational art-house calm of Lou’s 2014 “Blind Massage,” and plows deeper into the tangled thickets of dubious motivation and incomprehensible behavior that marred his last film, police procedural “The Shadow Play.”
It takes some time to work out what on earth is going on, largely because of Lou’s most confusing and counterproductive decision, which is to leadenly attempt a metafictional approach, whereby sometimes we’re in the film’s story, and sometimes in the story of the play-within-the-film. This is a problem and a huge red herring because the theater piece “Saturday Fiction” (which appears to be something about striking factory workers) has no resonance with the film “Saturday Fiction” and the transitions between the two keep tripping the narrative up, like the play is a badly placed coffee table. Here, the play is very much not the thing.
This is instead the story of Jean Yu (Gong Li), a famous actress who returns to Shanghai in December 1941, ostensibly to appear in a theatrical production directed by and co-starring her old flame Tan Na (Mark Chao). Jean’s real reasons for returning are obscure and Hydra-headed: as soon as one is revealed three more pop up. She may be there to secure the release of her ex-husband (Zhang Songwen) who is being held by the Japanese authorities for, again, obscure reasons; she may be pining for Tan Na, as he is for her, and wish to smuggle him away from the increasingly dangerous mainland; she may be spying for the Chinese, the French, the Allies or some combination; she may simply wish to reconnect with her beloved French foster father Frederic Hubert (Pascal Greggory), who is himself, inevitably, a spy; or she may be a double, triple or — what the hell — quadruple agent, playing both ends against the middle in the days immediately preceding the Pearl Harbor attack, in order to achieve some, none or all of the above goals. Good so far?
Along the way Jean encounters (deep breath): Saul (Tom Wlaschiha,) the manager of her French Concession hotel who appears friendly and obsequious but has bugged her phone and monitors her calls; Bai Mei (Huang Xiangli), an “All About Eve”-style Jean Yu stan, aspiring actress, magazine reporter and yes, also a spy, with whom Jean will have a mystifying one-night-stand; Mo Zhiyin (Wang Chuanjun), producer of the Tan Na’s play, Japanese collaborator and would-be rapist; Mr Furuya (Joe Odagiri), a Japanese official, who has access to vital secrets regarding Japan’s war plans, and who is the only person who does not recognize the mega-famous Jean, instead only being struck by her uncanny resemblance to his dead wife; and Kajiwara (Ayumu Nakajima), Furuya’s mustachioed sharpshooter henchman. As though to compensate for having far too many characters, Ma Yingi’s script skimps on characterization — no one here has any defining personality trait except untrustworthiness.
Mild relief will come to those hardy viewers who make it past the halfway mark, however, as around then, everybody suddenly acquires a gun and it’s a mite easier to work out who is in opposition to whom by where they’re pointing the shooty end. Still, for such a bullet-riddled, betrayal-addled spy thriller, “Saturday Fiction” is a slog, and not even one rescued by Li’s star power or the potential handsomeness of 1941 Shanghai shot in black and white. Instead, DP Zeng Jian’s anachronistically modern, low-contrast handheld camerawork keeps us so close to the characters that we seldom get a sense of place, while staying in such perpetual motion that we also seldom get a moment to to watch these actors actually act, to contemplate their faces. This is something of a crime when one of the faces is Gong Li’s.
It signals a grand missed opportunity for what ought to be a compelling, classy spy caper when even the final big “twist” feels curiously weightless, despite essentially turning the mysterious, tragic Jean into one of history’s great monsters. But then to take that point to heart, one has to care about her character, her story and her paltry justification for her final, flummoxing act of double-cross (“I did what I thought I should do”) and the motivationally murky, psychologically jerky “Saturday Fiction” makes that frustratingly hard to do.