Saturday Fiction Movie Review: Return of the Queen

Lou Ye’s latest film has a huge ace: a star turn by Gong Li. After rising to art house prominence around the world in the ‘90s, primarily in films by writer/director Yimou Zhang, followed by a foray into mainstream US productions in the 2000s, she has largely been out of action for much of the past decade. While her return to Chinese art house fare is welcome, it comes in a project that isn’t all that worthy of her talent.

Ye’s confusing story is set in Shanghai during World War II and casts Li as an undercover operative gathering intelligence for the Allies, ostensibly to help free her captive ex-husband. Rather than working in the shadows, she’s a prominent figure in Shanghai due to her career as a famous actress named Jean Yu. This brings her into the orbit of both Axis and Allied contacts as she rehearses for a play entitled Saturday Fiction

Ye establishes that Shanghai is occupied by the Japanese, but continues to operate as a free market where foreigners conduct trade as always. Unfortunately, he fails to define Jean’s true allegiance or the motivations of her co-stars, forgoing plot development for shots of characters staring pensively out windows or strolling with unknown purpose through the picturesque streets. It’s never really clear who’s deceiving who, why we should care, or how it fits into the global war until a clumsy reveal near the end of the film.

To compound matters, Ye chose to shoot most of the film with handheld cameras in extreme closeups on the characters, leading to an unsettling viewing experience. I suppose it’s period-authentic to forego Steadicam for full natural shakiness, but a surer hand on the camera would have been a great improvement. His insistence on close shots further alienates us as we struggle to get a grasp of the big picture going on around his mysterious characters. Even his decision to film in black and white is fumbled with some occasionally murky lighting that leaves many shots just gray.

Thankfully, Li contributes another exceptional performance, doing her best to bring some emotion and conviction to the passionless script. She hasn’t lost a step, and is just as stunning as she was in the ‘90s. While her co-stars and the plot are largely unmemorable, it’s a treat to see Li back in an art house-friendly Chinese drama.

Saturday Fiction is now playing in select theaters in the Los Angeles area, with further availability in the weeks to come. For more information, visit the Strand Releasing website.

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Steve Geise

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