Review: Gong Li brings old-school glamor to convoluted spy tale ‘Saturday Fiction’

A woman in the backseat of a car holding binoculars in the movie “Saturday Fiction.”
Gong Li in the 2019 drama “Saturday Fiction.”
(Strand Releasing)

A ripe era for wartime espionage makes for a hugger-mugger entertainment in Lou Ye’s black-and-white historical drama “Saturday Fiction.” Set in a tense, internationally partitioned but mostly Japan-controlled Shanghai in the first week of December 1941, it’s not too hard to figure out what kind of secrets a visiting Japanese bigwig wants to keep from the spies in his midst.

Is celebrated Chinese actress Jean Yu (Gong Li) one of these agents? She’s back in Shanghai to perform in a play with an old flame (Mark Chao), but she might be there to plot an escape with him, or free her incarcerated ex-husband, or complete one last mission with a French father figure/Allied spy (Pascal Greggory) running an operation targeting a high-ranking Japanese intelligence officer (Joe Odagiri).

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All the pieces seem to be in place for a juicy, smoke-filled “Casablanca”-meets-“Grand Hotel”-style corker where nobody is who they seem, and history lies in the balance, especially with a multilingual Gong effortlessly bringing old-school melancholic glamour to Jean’s role-playing. But as convolutedly scripted by Ma Yingli, and pushed around by the restless camerawork, it’s primarily a spotty fusion of spy-story contrivances and diffuse themes of truth and artifice, although the playground is plenty evocative: a swanky hotel, a grand old theater (the real Lyceum in Shanghai), and rainy streets.

Considering it’s Lou Ye (“Suzhou River”) at the helm, romantic obsession is a pressing concern — somebody even recites Nietzsche’s quote, “Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love” — but then so is violence. When “Saturday Fiction” segues into full-on gun battles, on one level it seems sharpened in the way the first hour isn’t — something feels unleashed in everyone letting go of pretenses. But then you’re also scratching your head at why a tale built on quivering threads of allure, loss, and theatrical duality is ending in an extended sequence of gangland-type bloodshed.

'Saturday Fiction'

In Mandarin, French and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes

Playing: Starts April 22, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles