Gong Li Period Piece Falls Short

History struggles to come alive in the mainland Chinese WWII spy thriller “Saturday Fiction,” a poorly lit memory play about a doomed espionage mission involving a famous Chinese actress (Gong Li) and a prominent Japanese military official (Joe Odagiri).

Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this sleepy and visually murky black-and-white drama belabors the same banal truisms about memory and role-playing during wartime –basically, it’s impossible to maintain your autonomy when you’ re only a pawn in a complicated game — and tends to be more interesting to think about than to watch.

Filmed with stiff hand-held photography, many scenes plod along in real time without a moment or compelling pace. The sound design’s focus on background noises, instead of a musical score, also soon becomes more irritating than intriguing. Gong and Odagiri do what they can with a generally thin scenario, inspired by novels by Ying Hong and Riichi Yokomitsu and screenwriter Yingli Ma, but the movie’s tragic foregone conclusion leaves few surprises for viewers.

Gong plays Jean Yu, a famous actress who returns to Shanghai to perform in “Saturday Fiction,” a theatrical play within the movie that co-stars Yu’s lover Na Tan (Mark Chao, “Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings”). Staying at the luxe Cathay Hotel, a French Concession, Yu drifts on- and off-stage without much dramatic incident. On stage at the Lyceum Theater, Yu plays the defiant leader of a factory strike; in the movie, she’s bait for Captain Saburo Furuya (Odagiri), since Ella Yu resembles Furuya’s dead wife Miyoko. Yu takes cues and reacts to various fair-weather co-conspirators but doesn’t really seem bothered by anything beyond whatever circumstantial peril she faces.

The vague connection between Yu’s dual roles makes it hard to take “Saturday Fiction” seriously as either historic fiction or arthouse fantasy. She’s got feelings for Tan and a sense of obligation to her ex-husband of her Zeren Ni (Songwen Zhang), who’s been imprisoned by the Japanese. But while Yu’s only working Furuya over in order to bust her ex out of jail, the actress hesitates and seems lost during conversations with a rotating cast of nosy and insistent men, like the play’s handsy producer Zhiyin Mo (Chuanjun Wang) and the hotel’s two -faced manager Saul Speyer (Tom Wlaschiha, “Game of Thrones”), all of whom expect Yu to put on a show for them.

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In this elusive context, it’s hard to know what to make of the movie’s version of Shanghai, a city that’s claimed but not really controlled by anybody for long. In the movie’s press notes, director Lou Ye (“Summer Palace”, “Spring Fever”) notes his real-life association with the Lyceum Theater (his parents used to work there backstage), but it’s hard to see or appreciate that personal connection based solely upon what’s on-screen in “Saturday Fiction.”

Lou blurs the line between fiction and meta-fiction, particularly by reimagining the Lyceum’s stage as an actual instead of represented café, full of merry and oblivious patterns. But it’s hard to know what unites “Saturday Fiction” the movie with “Saturday Fiction” the play, given Lou’s fragmented and ungenerous presentation of the play within his movie by him.

Yu and Furuya’s relationship comes to a dramatic head in the movie’s best scene, where she poses as Miyoko and solicits information from him, now drugged and under surveillance by mainland spies. Unfortunately, this scene isn’t much different, in terms of style or dramatic tension, than either the preceding or succeeding scenes. By reducing Shanghai to a grey, shapeless stage for players who don’t seem to know whether they’re coming or going, Lou and Ma make it impossible to get caught up in their narrative’s details.

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The movie’s depressed color palette and lurching pace give it a gauzy, funereal quality that clearly lets the viewer know that none of what you’re seeing will last for very long. The Japanese want control of the French Concessions, particularly the Cathay Hotel, and they’ve got more soldiers and guns than either Yu or her colleagues do. In the press notes, Lou suggests that his characters could n’t possibly know what’s about to happen: “Unaware of the future, they are simply living their lives as usual…”

But there’s also no way for viewers to appreciate what life was like for these characters beyond a few over-determined details, like the scuffing of their shoes on the cavernous soundtrack or what their faces look like in extreme and uncomfortably reading close-ups.

Lou’s short-sighted vision for how to represent the past keeps “Saturday Fiction” from effectively conveying the tragic uncertainty of living through interesting times. And he does n’t do much of note with star Gong, who’s often reduced to the main object and not the actual subject of her scenes from her. The plot tends to unfold around Yu de ella and not because of her de ella, not even when Yu’s supposed to be exercising whatever little free will she has. The passive nature of Yu’s character may be a deliberate artistic choice, but it’s also consistently frustrating in a movie that’s part spy thriller and part character study. There are too many moving parts in “Saturday Fiction,” and none of them remain in focus long enough to make a lasting impression.

“Saturday Fiction” opens in select US theaters April 22.

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