Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 09, 2019 6:58 am 
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Exploded atmosphere

Lou Ye's elaborate new black-and-white spy film, a showcase for the still glamorous and beautiful Gong LI set in Shanghai in the week before the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, is glamorous and atmospheric. One revels in the rainy streets, the big heavy black cars, the men and women dressed to the nines, the public rooms and suites of the elegant "Cathay Hotel" and a puzzling theater stage that seems like a dance hall perpetually in motion.

If I told you that I never quite understood exactly what was going on, that might not differentiate this movie from Casablanca or The Big Sleep. But something is lacking in the characterizations and the dialogue that those classics have. When it is all over and more than two hours have passed, there has been a lot of mystery and finally a lot of noise and blood, but there is not much satisfaction.

The action takes place in the cosmopolitan "French Concession," a place apart in the "solitary island" that the city of Shanghai has been since it was occupied by Japan in 1937 and a privileged neutral zone. Here, Jean Yu (Gong Li, as a famous actress, not a stretch) has come to join Tan Na (Mark Chao), the lead actor and director, in a play, to be staged at Shanghai's Lyceum Theatre, and they are former lovers. This much is clear.

But the scene in which they first meet here blurs the line between reality and theater, and it keeps getting repeated. I never quite understood why. (It almost seems the director of the film has mistakenly left in alternate takes, an effect that's intriguing, but also distracting.) The action begins in murkiness. And while there are continually moments in the light as various characters, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese, come and go, that murkiness continues and floods our perception of the proceedings. We are trapped in ongoing rehearsals, interrupted by double-crosses, surprised by furtive sendings of encrypted messages, and stunned by fatal shootouts. And yet the murkiness triumphs.

Toward the end, the on screen audience assembles for the play, entitled, yes, Saturday Fiction. But Jean Yu cannot perform because she is in too much danger. Her role is taken, temporarily, by Bai (Huang Xiangli), a reporter, spy operative, and acting hopeful who has infiltrated herself early on into Jean Yu's life. Switcheroos and multiple roles are the essence of this piece.

Jean Yu, who's been in Hong Kong a while, is ceremonially greeted as she arrives in the French Concession by the Cathay Hotel's manager Saul Speyer (Tom Wlaschiha of "Game of Thrones"). He turns out to be spying for the Allies, and will report also on all her activities. She has come not only for the play but to locate her ex-husband, and get him out of the hands of the Japanese, who have captured him. She has been a spy operative herself, hence Saul Speyer's special interest. But she's here also for a third reason. She's been summoned by Frédéric Hubert (Pascal Greggory), a French book dealer who reveals his possession of a rare copy of Sorrows of Young Werther signed not only by the author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but by Friedrich Nietzsche. M. Hubert walks with a cane, but it's just an elegant accoutrement. He's quietly natty dresser who's also a spymaster who has looked over Jean Yu over the years while running her espionage missions for some years.

This is a movie that goes a little too slow for quite a while, until it goes too fast. It steeps itself in rich period atmosphere (though with a few touches that are plainly anachronistic), and lingers over Jean Yu's meetings with various men, and has to take time to introduce us to the puzzling play, the Cathay Hotel's labyrinthine passages, and the cast of characters. The latter include Mo Zhiyin (Wang Chuanjun), the Lyceum's untrustworthy and malicious producer, and importantly, Captain Saburo (Joe Odagiri), a Japanese military intelligence officer who has come to Shanghai to distribute to his operatives the updated Japanese operational codes. These M. Hubert is extremely keen on learning. It so happens that Jean Yu may be able to help him pry them out of Saburo, because she closely resembles his dead wife. (Several people get slipped a sleeping potion that helps unlock their secrets.)

Once all this gets set up, the Japanese come in, violence breaks out, and Jean Yu, in the semi-darkness, becomes a nearly indestructible superhero on the Chinese side, capable of wielding a pistol and an automatic weapon with equal pinpoint accuracy. After the long scenes of dreamy dialogue, I confess I found this sudden turn to violence bewildering. After all, it's Gong Li. All that lovely, if somewhat draggy, atmosphere, exploded, thrown away in a prolonged shootout? It seems modern directors love doing period but lack insight into the genres that go with it. Watch, though, to see what happens to The Sorrows of Young Werther, in a memorable sequence when M. Hubert slips away.

Saturday Fiction 兰心大剧院 (Lyceum Theatre), 125 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2019, also in five other festivals including Toronto and New York, screened at the NYFF for this review. Slated for US release by Kino Lorber. Metascore: 51%.

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