Reviewed by: ewaffle
"Purple Butterfly" is the type of movie that gives directorial self-indulgence a bad name. A relatively straightforward combination of love in a doomed city, political betrayal and personal agony, it is made all but incomprehensible with poorly handled flashbacks, a literally murky color palette and absurd coincidences. While there is a lot of good film-making in "Purple Butterfly", it is sabotaged by lazy storytelling and sloppy use of camera tricks. There is a tacked on shocker of an ending that makes the everything that happened in the movie pointless.
It begins in Manchuria, 1928. Cynthia, who is Chinese, and Itami who is there from Japan, are star-crossed lovers. He has been called home to Tokyo, she has to stay in China. They have a few, last stolen moments in his ramshackle room and then have to part. They miss each other at the train station--he has a final gift for her, a silly doll that she admired in a store window while she is paralyzed with grief, not going onto the platform with him but watching through a window. When she returns to the city Cynthia sees her brother stabbed and two of his friends killed by a maniacal Japanese nationalist. This is a very well done sequence, contrasting the pain of seeing death and destruction close at hand to the emotional upheaval of parting with a lover.
We are next introduced to Szeto and Yi Ling. They are also on the verge of parting but Szeto knows he will be returning before too long. They meet and walk through the rain to catch a movie--it rained all day, every day in Shanghai back then--and he spends a tender, loving night with her after she convinces him that the last tram has left. There is a lovely sequence of Yi Ling enticing Szeto by dancing with him--and leading--in her apartment. Sometime later a telegram arrives for Yi Ling: Szeto is on his way back to her. She hurries to the train station, where everything falls apart.
Members of the anti-Japanese underground who are there to meet an assassin mistake Szeto for the assassin--as do the security police. Bullet fly--a lot of bullets, from pistols, sub-machine guns and even shotguns and while a great many people, including Tang Yi Ling, are killed while Szeto is only slightly wounded. He winds up in a car with some activists from the Purple Butterfly group who dump him out the door when they realize he isn't the assassin.
This is where Lou Ye seems to lose control of the story: characters move from 1928 to 1931 in flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks). Scenes are bathed in an almost eerie blue light, making images indistinct and giving everything an unworldly look. There are a many shots through windows with distorting reflections on the glass surface keeping us at arms length from the action or plotting by the characters. By the time the various relationships among the principal characters have been sorted out we no longer care about who was doing what to whom last year or last month. The bloody, extended climax doesn't make things any more clear. Everyone is dead but the viewer isn't sure who killed who although it seems as if everyone was trying to shoot or knife everyone else.
There is some bravura film-making in "Purple Butterfly". One instance occurs with Yi Ling at train station to meet the returning Szeto. We follow her as she walks along the platform. Across the tracks is another platform on which a large car slowly drives along, but the focus stays on Yi Ling. Then the camera which had been following her speeds up a bit and she slips out of the frame. The focus is now on the car which stops, two men and a woman get out and begin to walk. The three of them go up some stairs that leads to a metal bridge over the tracks. They are obscured by the arriving train and when we next see them coming down the stairs on this side of the tracks there is only one man and a woman. The three of them are clearly on a mission and have deployed themselves for it.
There are also some suspense filled moments. Itami tells Cynthia that he is returning to Tokyo in a few days and wants her to accompany him since, he says, the war is getting closer to Shanghai. What he doesn't say but which is obvious to everyone is that he since he is the second in command of Japanese intelligence in the area he knows exactly where the war will arrive. Itami says that Cynthia could work in a hospital (her current cover) and they could be together. Cynthia doesn't know if Itami has discovered she is a Chinese agent and is trying to trap her, if he knows she is a Chinese agent but thinks that getting her out of Shanghai and into Japan will change her or if he simply doesn't know who she really is. The audience is similarly in the dark regarding his real intentions. Both of them are ambiguous and conflicted characters but Lou Ye doesn't develop them enough for us to want to know what is happening with them.
More than a few "look at me" shots seem to be little more than Lou Ye showing off. I found one set of them particularly annoying since it was so obvious but just as obviously didn't mean anything. Twice Yi Ling is shown at work--she is a telephone operator at a busy exchange, working along with a score of other young women putting calls through. In each case, shortly after that scene we see Xie Ming, the head of the anti-Japanese underground cell getting coded message through secret receiver. Both Xie Ming and Yi Ling are isolated in the shots although there are others in the room. Both are facing the same way and taking up about the same amount of space in the frame. Most importantly both scenes are lit with a golden glow, unmistakable when compared to the otherwise unrelieved blues and grays that dominate the palette, the only times that this very distinctive color is used. But unlike the earlier scene with the focus of the camera and the audience moving from Yi Ling to the car with the assassins, these parallels don't do anything.
The casting was excellent. Zhang Ziyi comes through quite well in a very wide ranging role that would challenge almost any actress. Li Bing-Bing is perfect as Yi Ling and we grieve when she is killed. Feng Yuan-Zheng does the best he can with Xie Ming although it is a thankless task since Xie Ming is a cross between an IRA gunman and an unfeeling Leninist revolutionary cadre. Liu Ye, with his haunted eyes and sharp features that could be hacked out of stone with an axe is excellent as Szeto.
Almost tacked on to the end is what looks to be newsreel footage that begins with scenes of a city being bombed from the air. Without "Shanghai 1937" superimposed it could be Tokyo, London or Berlin. The footage gets closer to the action as it goes on, with jerky black and white shots of civilian refugees fleeing as neighborhoods burn. Then comes the super "Nanjing 1937" with the scenes of real horror, the "unrepresentable evil" of genocide. Lou Ye seems to be saying that whatever the Japanese intelligence agents and Chinese resistance did early in the war meant nothing and that those depicted in the movie might as well not have bothered. Which actually occurred to me as I was watching "Purple Butterfly" but since wars are won and lost and history is made by many thousands of decisions and actions of many thousands of people, decisions and actions that Lou Ye was depicting throughout the movie I was surprised at the flat nihilistic turn at the end. I haven't seen any reviews that reflect on the way it ends and whether it was Lou Ye's artistic decision or was possibly done to make the film more politically acceptable for the PRC.