Interview With Lou Ye and Ma Yingli: Everyone Is a Pawn

CineCina: The opening sequence of Saturday Fiction is not coherent with the later parts. It is a separate beginning, but it sets the tone of the film. First there is the rehearsal, and then it is directly followed by Yu Jin and Tan Na’s escape, which seems like a real situation. Could you talk a bit about this opening? Because it is separate—before Yu Jin arrives in Shanghai, and before the subtitles appear.

Lou: Yes, it is actually telling the audience from the beginning that the situation of space and time is confusing. There are no boundaries between what you thought as the real and the fictional spaces. Maybe this is the first signal, and the later parts follow.

CineCina: We made a retrospective for you where all of your works since Suzhou River are screened. For me, In Shanghai is a very interesting film, but it is seldom mentioned.

Lou: It is that documentary.

CineCina: Because that documentary is also talking about the fictional and real spaces behind and in front of the camera. There is a scene where the cameraman who shoots pedestrians at the bund is being chased and runs with his camera.

Lou: Yes.

CineCina: This reminds me of the beginning of Saturday Fiction, where they escape after fighting.
Lou: (laugh) Yes.
CineCina: The shaking camera—I guess it is Zeng Jian (who was shooting).

Ma: Yes, yes. That angle—it was (Zeng Jian). It may be a habitual camera position.
Lou: That shaking was also by Zeng Jian. (laugh)

CineCina: Was that the first time he cooperated with you? In terms of photography…

Lou: Yes, in photography; a short film. He just graduated then and shot that short film. And then the first time was Spring Fever.

CineCina: Because I am very interested in drama, I want to ask about the part of play-within-a-play first. Everyone is saying that Saturday Fiction is an adaptation of Hong Ying’s novel, and I read it too. In fact, the part of play-within-a-play is an adaptation of Shanghai by Yokomitsu Riichi, a Japanese writer. It does not seem to have a Chinese version. I am still looking for it.

Lou: There is one (published in Taiwan), but the translation is not good.

CineCina: It tells a left-wing story. Why did you set it up like this? Of course, it echoes the plot and the whole film, but why did you choose (stories like) the factory strike and the secret meeting of left-wing youth?

Lou: According to my understanding, this is what people then would rehearse and play. It also echoes the entire text of Saturday Fiction. In fact, Saturday Fiction is relatively middle-class, because it is about theater, hotel, artists, and businessmen. So the play within the play adds something that does not belong to this class, which is quite important . If you pay attention, there are actually two places in the whole film that are outside (this class): a prostitute warming herself by the fire and a laundry room. These are also outside the class of the story of Saturday Fiction.

CineCina: That’s when Saul, in the hotel—

Lou: In the hotel, he walks past the laundry room and the ironing room at the back of the hotel, and there are two prostitutes warming themselves by the fire when he goes out. These are very important supplementary information for me. For the whole background…

CineCina: It’s also a feeling of life.

Lou: For example, the situation of the factory (in the play with in the play) is actually very important information; it is the spectrum of Shanghai in 1941. So when I say this is a color film, I’m not talking about the spectrum of the colors on the surface, but a different spectrum. And after you remove the colors on the surface, the other spectrum needs to be more strictly dealt with, that is, no level should be lost, including the left-wing dramas, the works by League of Left-Wing Writers. In fact, the Saturday school is on the opposite side of the League of Left-Wing Writers.

CineCina: Yes, the Saturday school is what they criticized.

Lou: Correct. This is why I say Death in Shanghai is not Hong Ying’s best novel, but it is a relatively special novel. Whether she is conscious or unconscious, she is combing some literary schools at the beginning of modernism. (Ma: At least we read it like this.) She might be unconscious. The names she gave to her characters, Yu Jin, Mo Zhiyin, etc. Yes, these subconscious things. From the perspective of the author, the subconscious combing, including that of feminism, whether she is intentional or unintentional, exists from the perspective of the author. I mean, including Yingli’s script, our work actually starts from this; this is the beginning, and then we developed from here. That is to say, it naturally returns to the background of its origins, such as left-wing strikes, which has been mentioned many times. Including feminism, the identity of women; her identity is multiple, and some parts are hidden. And including her mirror character, which are actually derived from the origin.

CineCina: There is a major change in the film. When I read Death in Shanghai, I felt a little disappointed because Yu Jin’s death is revealed at the beginning.

Lou: Ah yes, yes. It seems so.

CineCina: Then there is a paragraph about her audience going to bid her farewell.

Ma: It should be considered a flashback.

CineCina: Yes, it is a flashback. So the film keeps the suspense…

Lou: Saturday Fiction is basically a linear narrative. But the line is ambiguous; It’s actually double- or multi-layered. On the surface, it proceeds linearly from Monday to Saturday. But in fact you see it proceeds; I didn’t change the timeline. And you see other linear things happening at the same time. That is to say, I put the entire film on one timeline, making a relatively simple linear narrative, a relatively simple parallel editing. In fact, the plan is like this, without using many other techniques.

CineCina: A model of the stage is mentioned repeatedly in the film. Later, the audience will know that this stage is made according to that dock bar, which also connects reality and drama.

Lou: Yes, (the stage) is basically a real scene copied.

Ma: I saw an article today; someone sent it to me. It is based on these things you are talking about, “Writers’ stories that you don’t know.” It deals with writers one by one, including Zheng Zhenduo and others.

CineCina: I saw that in director’s statement you mention that Saturday Fiction is a conversation with the Saturday school.

Ma: This is why we don’t want to change our English title.

CineCina: I don’t know if it is related, but the Saturday school also made films at a later stage…

Lou: Yeah, it’s actually a very heterogeneous genre, and compromises a lot with popular culture. It has the earliest genre literature, such as mystery and detective. So from this perspective, Death in Shanghai is more of that kind, or it can be seen as a novel that “combs”.

CineCina: Hong Ying said her Death in Shanghai is a hotel novel. But in Saturday Fiction, the whole battlefield is put in the theatre. Is there anything you want to talk about this?

Lou: The novel is the beginning, just as hotel novel is a concept, the Saturday school is a concept, and film noir is also a concept. But when I work, I want to put these things aside first, preferably not having preconceived ideas. Instead of saying, “Oh, this is a film noir, so we do it in film noir’s language,” I like starting from the actual space, the actual story, and the actual characters.

CineCina: I also noticed Wang Chuanjun and Huang Xiangli, who respectively play the roles of Mo Zhiyin and Bai Yunshang. They are also (acting in dramas) recently. Huang made her name with dramas, such as those directed by Meng Jinghui.

Lou: Yes, she has always been in dramas.

CineCina: Wang has also participated in some dramas (such as Bartleby the Scrivener). Did you intentionally picked some stage performers for this film?

Lou: The cast of this film actually has to take drama into consideration. For example, actors with stage experience in drama need to be considered. Also, the role of the star is best played by a star. Pretending to be a star is the worst thing to do.

CineCina: The role played by Mark Chao is not so important in the novel. I personally feel that Tan Na’s only task in the entire film may be to complete his play. He has no political or other intentions. He may be the least active character in the whole film. I don’t know if you would agree with me.

Lou: He may be a character who is passively involved in the whole incident.

CineCina: His facial expression is a bit—I don’t know how to describe it—slow and dumb, as if he doesn’t know what is going on.

Lou: He is a pawn. That’s what he says.

CineCina: Everyone is actually a pawn, isn’t he?

Ma: But he feels that he is relatively unconscious. And I think the word passive is more accurate, because in fact, many characters in Lou Ye’s previous films are particularly passive. For example, the one played by Liu Ye in Purple Butterfly is passively involved in history.

Lou: He actually wants to be someone like Yu Jin, but he can’t. He supports the workers’ movement, but he cannot go to the front line.

CineCina: And he needs Mo Zhiyin’s money.

Lou: (laugh) Ah yes. He supports the left, but when the left is really in the street, he may be a little scared. He can dedicate himself to love, but he returns in face of death. That’s how (the role) is. I think he is close to the Saturday school. (laugh)

Ma: And he is close to reality. There aren’t so many heroes in the world; most people are very aware of their fate. People (like Tan Na) are probably the majority.

CineCina: Saturday Fiction still maintains a lot of relevance to your previous films. It is thematically or narratively similar to Purple Butterfly. The big, vertically shown subtitles are actually also used in Spring Fever. Since I am a Shanghai native, I am very interested in the entire Shanghai area and streets that the subtitles refer to. The road names are shown, but it seems that the English subtitles do not translate them.

Ma: Because it doesn’t make sense to translate. They wouldn’t understand.

Lou: They are too complicated.

CineCina: But I think it is very interesting, because the road names not only tell whether it is in the Japanese or the French concession, but also has a directivity of the entire space. Because this film is about Shanghai in the isolated period, there is no way to shoot it completely in today’s Shanghai, is there?

Lou: But they are still very detailed places.

Ma: Very detailed.

CineCina: I heard there is a very long take in the film, but I didn’t see it.

Lou: It’s actually his (Mark Chao) personal feeling at the press conference that day. Because none of the actors has seen the whole film. Basically, I work on the whole film with long takes, so there are very long ones. Mark has never cooperated with me (so maybe he does not know).

CineCina: He has to shout “Action!” first on the stage, and goes to the backstage to say hello to other staff members, and then comes back. This is very suitable to use a long take to express.

Lou: The whole scene of the rehearsal was shot in long takes.

Ma: But when editing, the original length of the long takes are not necessarily kept.

Lou: Yeah, but we have also kept some long ones.

CineCina: I feel that the cuttings are quite quick in this film.

Lou: It has a fast pace. The Shadow Play is also fast.

CineCina: Yes, but since I have read the novel, I know who the characters are.

Lou: But I’m not sure if the audience can follow.

CineCina: That’s the point. But I think that if the speed is fast, it is like a person entering this world where different information and different events are happening. He is not clear. The audience is actually thrown into the narrative.

Ma: It feels like a documentary.

CineCina: I was impressed by the first conversion, that is, when the two protagonists start to perform, they each light a cigarette, which is shown in close-up. Then it switches to another café, where they are really talking, and Mo Zhiyin is watching them outside. This sequence uses a close-up as transition. It is a transition between the real and the fictional. It is really impressive.

Lou: Yeah, when he walks over, it’s already there.

CineCina: There are no boundaries.

Ma: It’s called seamless connection, between the worlds inside and outside the play. That’s only one example, and there are actually many later. Maybe it is because it is the first time that you are more impressed.

Lou: It is linear, but in fact its space and meaning keep changing. And you cannot find the transition.

CineCina: You also mentioned that when you were a kid, your parents were working at Lanxin (Theater), and you saw such rehearsals in the backstage. Is this a reason that has motivated you to make theater so important?

Lou: Yes, when I was reading the novel, because it was about the theater and there were also performances on the stage, it certainly directly touched my memory. I knew immediately that it could be made into a film, because it has a deep connection with myself. So this is a good signal, showing that this is something that I can work on, and it turns out to be workable.

CineCina: That’s all. Thank you both!

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