Spy thrillers are one genre where it’s very easy to have too much of a good thing. They’re powered by secrets and twists, but Saturday Fiction is burdened with too much of the former at the start, and too much of the latter by the end.
It’s incredibly difficult to find your footing with Ma Yingli’s script, which introduces Jean Yu (Gong Li) as an actress and a spy in World War Two era Shanghai and surrounds her with an ensemble of dubious motives and unclear alliance. The murky plot is made all the more difficult to follow by director Lou Ye’s decision to disguise whether Jean is rehearsing or living her normal life at any given moment. It’s a sleight of hand which is very well done and has a clear purpose in highlighting the duplicity of subterfuge, but mostly serves to confuse the viewer.
Gong is tremendous in the lead role, radiating film star elegance with a gritty edge, but her character is far too passive for much of the film. We see that she’s being spied upon, but what is her mission? An ex-husband makes a brief appearance for Jean to save, but it’s only in the final minutes that we learn her ultimate goal.
The period detail is recreated in breath-taking beauty by production designer Zhong Cheng and costume designer Linlin May, crowned by Zeng Jian’s astonishing cinematography. He shoots in a dreamy, low-contrast black and white, evoking the mystery and suffocating tension of the story without sacrificing on sheer beauty.
Once everyone starts pointing pistols at each other it becomes much easier to work out who’s on whose side, but by then it’s too late. The final barrage of action is a thrilling and epic end to this complicated story, but it can’t redeem the mess created in the first half.
CAST: Li Gong, Tom Wlaschiha, Mark Chao, Pascal Greggory
DIRECTOR: Ye Lou
WRITER: Yingli Ma
SYNOPSIS: Yu Jin is working undercover gathering intelligence for the Allies.