There was another brief lull here at the 76th Venice Film Festival until things picked up again today with Chinese director Lou Ye’s dramatic espionage actioner SATURDAY FICTION, starring screen legend Gong Li in super-spy mode like you’ve never seen her before.
Taking place over the course of one week before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the film recounts a semi-love story set against the tumultuous background of occupied Shanghai. Jean Yu (Gong) is a beloved actress who has been away from the spotlight for a few years and unexpectedly came back to the city to rehearse a new play called Saturday Fiction with director/old flame Tan Na (Mark Chao). Gradually we realize that there might be other, truer reasons for her return – the question is if even Jean herself, who works as an agent under the French consulate, can tell which are which.
The setting of the film is one of particular complexity in contemporary Chinese history. A decentralized nationalist government is struggling to keep the Japanese invasion at bay, European forces are still in town clinging on to the relics of their colonial heyday, while the Russians and Americans are waiting in the wings, ready to turn the war-torn country into their next ideological battleground. The network of the alliance is intricate, the idea of partnership fragile, and basic human trust a near-extinct luxury. Everyone has an agenda, nobody is who they seem to be.
Aided by longtime creative partner Ma Yingli’s smartly adapted screenplay, Lou captures that sense of unrest, mistrust and dangerous volatility beautifully by weaving together the protagonists’ deceitful schemes and Jean’s stage rehearsals. Oftentimes scenes of crisis or intimate revelations will, in a heady rush of confusion, turn out to be reenactments; while in “real life,” people are also seen to disguise themselves and fake their intentions, if for more insidious purposes. This marriage of illusion and a treacherous, unreliable reality is entrancingly trippy, adding a note of uncertainty to all you see on screen.
Lou’s fluent, perspective-hopping direction shows great finesse and confidence. The stealthy, meandering way he tells the story does the extraordinary circumstances justice, and his boldest choices pay off big time. For example, the opening scene, which migrates from the stage all the way out of the theater with urgent, fourth-wall-breaking intrigue, plays out one more time later on. Seen in a different light, the curious déjà-vu flips what you think you saw once again, further solidifying a spellbound, dreamlike impression.
Also contributing to this impression is DP Zeng Jian’s excellent work. Sure, the handheld camera can be pretty disorienting and this black-and-white picture does appear underlit at times. But once one gets used to the swift, monochrome imagery, it’s impossible not to notice the efficiency and precision of movement of the cameraman. In some ways reminiscent of SON OF SAUL or Aronofsky’s MOTHER!, the cinematography of this film feels ferociously charged. There’s an immediacy to the visual language that communicates the gravity and imminent danger inherent in the narrative.
Gong Li did not get quite as much to do as I’d hoped for, but this is still an undeniable star turn and a treat for the fans. Bringing her megawatt glamour to the role, she’s effortlessly convincing as the movie star with a secret. In two scenes where she’s required to extract information from an enemy and a friend, we’re also reminded just how vulnerable and seductive she can be, exercising a near-hypnotic control over her counterpart and all of us. That said, when it comes down to it, the movie’s single greatest contribution to the arts of moving image might be the gift of seeing the Chinese film icon wielding pistols and machine guns like a badass after the slow-burning drama switches to full-blown massacre mode towards the end. Simply magnificent.
Something that remains unanswered throughout SATURDAY FICTION is why Jean hesitated to relay a piece of crucial intelligence that could change the fate of the Second World War. That, together with the fact that we never learned, conclusively, her motivation for returning to Shanghai in the first place, built the central mystique of the character. In my mind, it also perfectly sums up a time in history so fraught with deception that truth itself has somehow become a false concept.
In the meantime, we’ve seen ABOUT ENDLESSNESS, THE PAINTED BIRD and BABYTEETH premiere in competition. The latest offering from Swedish maestro, Golden Lion winner Roy Andersson is as expected a minutely curated collage of vignettes about the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. It’s executed with Scandinavian refinement and Andersson’s trademark offbeat humor. Can’t find much fault with this one except it feels just a bit too familiar, if somewhat less impactful. As for Czech director Václav Marhoul’s relentlessly, RELENTLESSLY brutal 169-minute Holocaust memorial, well, let’s just say it’s not the easiest watch. Rigorously told and handsomely shot in black-and-white, it chronicles a young Jewish boy’s journey across Europe where he suffers various forms of abuse along the way. Its message is obviously beyond reproach but the extent of violence depicted might not be easily justified. There’s violence against children, violence against women, violence against babies, violence against animals. There’s also plenty of violence against straight men so I guess it’s at least equal-opportunity on-screen cruelty but questions of excess would be more than legitimate here. Australian director Shannon Murphy’s debut feature, on the other hand, is a blast to sit through. Telling the love story between a terminally ill girl and a drug dealer, it’s kinetically directed with touches of visual flourish and scored to a wonderfully youthful, kaleidoscopic soundtrack. The film might ultimately be just a bit too conventional in conception and approach, but a vibrant, bittersweet ride it certainly is. Both leads Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace are terrific and strong contenders for the most promising actor award of the festival.