Remember Gong Li? The Chinese actor with the classically glamorous face and bearing was the cynosure of all eyes beginning in the 1990s, on the strength of her world-wide success in films directed by Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, Shanghai Triad), Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Wayne Wang (Chinese Box) and Wong Kar Wai (2046). Gong was variously hailed as one of the world’s most beautiful women, the Chinese Meryl Streep or perhaps Disney’s sexiest witch, for her role in the live action version of Mulan.
But stars don’t shine forever. The movie biz is notoriously fickle, and favored tastes eventually go out of fashion. Which brings us to Saturday Fiction, a costumed spy drama by filmmaker Lou Ye, starring Gong as a former showbiz sensation making a comeback in a perilous wartime situation. Produced in 2019 and sent out on the international festival circuit for more than two years, it’s yet another of the lost movies of the pandemic. Now Saturday Fiction has finally fluttered down to street level under the Strand Releasing banner, and it’s opening Friday at a theater near you. It has a few problems.
The setting is Shanghai, a few days before the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese sneak attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor. A famous actor named Yu Jin (Gong) has returned from Hong Kong to her Shanghai hometown, now an “isolated island” of international influence, under Japanese occupation. The ostensible reason for her homecoming is to star in a stage play in the French Concession, a part of the city outside the control of the Japanese military. However, the celebrated Yu, aka Jean Yu or Miss Qiu-lin, is actually on a secret mission: to learn as much as possible about Japanese naval intelligence and its plans to attack Hawaii.
The fabled port of Shanghai, notorious for its wicked ways, is crawling with spies. The manager of Jean’s hotel (German actor Tom Wlaschiha) is bugging her phone calls. A couple of Japanese goons (played by Joe Odagiri and Nakajima Ayumu) follow her around like dogs. Jean’s ex-husband (Wang Chan-jun) has been arrested and tortured by the Japanese. A clandestine Allied agent (French actor Pascal Greggory) is assigned to guide Jean’s operations. And suddenly, Jean is accosted on the street by a young woman (Huang Xiangli) claiming to be her biggest fan, who worms her way into the veteran actor’s inner circle—shades of All About Eve. The only character who seems to actually care about the woman herself is Tan Na (Mark Chao), director of Jean’s new play, Saturday Fiction. He’s a former boyfriend from her factory days.
At the center of all this intrigue, Jean behaves like a self-centered star rudely awakened to a sense of patriotic national duty. At least that’s what we infer from writer Ma Yingli’s screenplay—adapted from books by Chinese and Japanese authors. Frustratingly, as director Lou’s camera whirls around the imperious diva like a moth in front of a flame, we never really learn much about Jean’s inner thoughts, her true point of view, at least until the lead starts flying in the violent final quarter.
The front story is continually intercut with flashbacks and sequences from Jean’s stage play, defusing the suspense. The ostensibly intricate spy-plot mechanism never flows freely, often stopping abruptly for repetitive plot wrinkles. Watching this, our thoughts drift back to another, more skillfully conceived Chinese-Japanese World War II drama, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. Saturday Fiction proves, as if proof were needed, that even the most radiant movie star can be sandbagged by indifferent or clumsy story construction and awkward direction. The 56-year-old Gong Li, who still has the ability to command the screen, probably deserves better. We in the audience certainly do.