Saturday Fiction – TIFF 2019 Review

I have a love/hate relationship with most films that alter real-life timelines and historic events, in order to complete an appropriate agenda. Some of these films come off as crude exploits, while others as genuine tributes. Most of these alterations come in the form of war flicks, either both on the battlefield or in normal civilian life. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is one film in mind, that does this adaptation of history wisely and methodically, with his divided air, land, and sea vignettes being the film’s main anchor to it’s emotional truth. At the end of the day, it’s all up to the director, how they approach their method of execution. With Saturday Fiction, the latest feature from Lou Ye, who is a multi-winning Chinese director known for taking controversial steps in his lavishly noir productions; the end result of his most recent piece is overpowered by ambition over common sense. 

Saturday Fiction is a confusing, muddled mess. Interchanging between a wide array of near-unidentifiable characters and bland motivations, this espionage drama is nothing short of boring. The first third widely consists of gossip and the occasional casual spying; yet the focus on the film’s protagonist Xian Lang, is nowhere to be found. We can neither sympathize nor even give a shit about Lang’s situation, and her incarcerated significant other. She’s a plot device, and so is everybody else in this film. There’s not a single character that has anything going for them, where the boundary between likability and reputability has completely vanished out of sight. As each event adds on to the other, it’s nearly impossible to concentrate on the complex web of penetrating surveillance, when there’s nothing to care for to begin with. 

The film’s only two saving graces are Gong Li’s inspiring performance and the film’s gorgeous black-and-white period-piece aesthetic. With not much to work with Ye’s vision, Li tries her damn best in delivering a role with some sort of nuance. We see her character at her best, and her unfortunate worst; and her range adds to the realistic tone of the film’s gritty subject matter. On a more technical level, the production design and costumes all ooze with flavor and reminiscent cultural experiences of the depicted era. The monochrome camera-work also adds a layer of soothing sexiness to its pre-established lavish long-takes and star-studded closeups. 1941-era Shanghai has never looked this astonishing! 

Saturday Fiction is an unneeded, brash take on the antecedent of the Pearl Harbor disaster. It’s a dreary ride, where even with it’s fine-tuned technical merits, there’s no saving the film from a tiresome, monotonous experience. Instead of lurking in the shadows, or spying to possibly purchase a ticket to Saturday Fiction, just stop wasting your time all together. There’s a whole world of contemporary cinema that’s more worth your time and espionage efforts!

Saturday Fiction screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film is currently seeking North American Distribution

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