Saturday Fiction at Venezia 76: mesmerising, violent and intense
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Chinese noir is the most exciting movement in modern cinema. Inspired by an oppressive government and mandated by draconian media censorship laws, the situation in China bears an eerie resemblance to the environment that birthed the original noir wave in 30’s and 40’s America. Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction is an absolutely stunning addition to that canon – mesmerising, violent and intense, it provided an earth-shattering wakeup call on the Lido at its morning premiere.
Entering through wisps of cigarette smoke, Li Gong’s Jean Yu is a famous actor in 1940’s Shanghai who returns to the city for a long period of absence. The year is 1941, and Shanghai is in the middle of its ‘solitary island’ period – the Japanese have taken over, but pockets of colonial occupation remain. Is she here to star in a major play, to rescue her ex husband from the clutches of the Japanese secret service, or for something else entirely? The streets are humming with gossip and theory.
The first hour of Saturday Fiction spends a lot of time introducing us to a host of characters and telling us, sometimes enigmatically, where their allegiances lie. Following Yu around everywhere are a Chinese and a Japanese agent, who occasionally exchange secrets from their respective governments in order to gain a foothold in the war for information. Whispers travel from allied voices around the hotel where she stays; it appears as if Yu has been summoned to Shanghai by the French, although to what end?
A major figure in the Japanese army has come to town to give a presentation on a new code protocol to the Naval college; he’s brought his vicious bodyguard with him. Everyone appears to be eyeing everyone else up – assessing their threat level and opportunistically considering what they could gain from using them. The question levelled at Yu is somewhat vaguer – what are you even doing here? Lou is clearly not as interested in the motivations of his characters as he is in what they will do to reach their goals – who they will sidestep or destroy for the pursuit of their mission objective. “Ultimately it is the desire, not the desired, that we love” a quote from Nietzsche proclaims.
As this complicated, exhausting spiral of espionage ripples through the city, Yu rehearses the play she is to star in with an old friend – a theatre director who remains ever suspicious of her true intentions. Everything is uncertain – will she even turn up for opening night? Masterfully, Lou Ye integrates these rehearsal scenes with his real-life action, so that we never really know whether we’re watching spies or merely a story about spies. The implication is clear: everyone is acting, nobody is who they seem, everything is uncertain. We, as the audience, should not believe anything we hear.
This is all shot in a beautifully murky, chiaroscuro black and white that emphasises shadow over light. The film’s beautiful, bone-marrow rich production design sees vintage cars purring down colonial streets as a cast of impeccably-costumed, stylish spies trip over each other in pursuit of information we know nothing about.
But it’s the second hour that really propels Saturday Fiction as a masterpiece of modern noir. Like a car crash in slow motion, all of our beautifully fleshed-out, stylish characters collide together in an astonishing set-piece that finally lays their cards out flat on the table. Then, with the fuse lit, we’re thrown into a vicious, climactic 30-minute shootout that feels like an ice-cool, Wong Kar-Wei remake of Free Fire. Playing expertly with light and dark, Lou Ye completely shreds the grand French hotel with a maelstrom of bullets and splatters of dark blood. By the end, it’s looking like a nightmarish Jackson Pollock.
Lights flicker as muzzle flashes pierce through the darkness, momentarily illuminating eviscerated bodies floating through the air as if in stasis; immortalised in a single strobing moment, frozen in time. Fittings crumble and fall to the floor, colonial residue collapsing under the weight of the impending war. Pearl Harbour will be attacked the next morning. Roaming like murderous ghosts through the vast, empty corridors of this Imperialist palace, spectres of the East haunt the castles of the West.
One-third the stunning chiaroscuro noir of The Third Man; one third the woozy, luxuriant nostalgia of Wong Kar-Wei; and one third the bloody, balletic mayhem of John Woo; Saturday Fiction is an experience to get lost in and cherish. Wandering the vast halls of the Sala Casino after it had ended, I wondered if I had ever really left its dangerous, velvet embrace.