The Butterfly Murders (1979)
Reviewed by: MrBooth on 2002-03-04
Summary: Somebody release this on DVD please!
I've had the VCD of this for quite some time, but after trying the first few minutes I decided that it was no way to view Tsui Hark's acclaimed debut. The full-frame transfer has the subtitles cropped at sides & bottom, and certainly isn't the best visual presentation the movie could receive. The scratched print and VCD's natural picture deficiency didn't help either. Temptation got the better of me today though - I figured that at least with the Malata I could zoom out to eliminate the overscan, and at least read half the subtitles that way. It was still painfully clear that the image was cropped though, and enough of the subtitles were irretrievably lost at the left & right to make it difficult to follow in places. This difficulty was severely increased by the fact that there seems to be a chunk of footage missing near the start of the second disc. One second somebody's about to read an important letter, the next somebody's getting their arm cut off and somebody else is being set on fire. After that point I was never quite sure what was going on

On to the movie though... basically, a bunch of killer butterflies are on the loose, and most of the inhabitants of Shum castle have been wiped out by them. A swordsman, a spritely young wuxia lady and a writer all meet up at the castle to try and work out what's going on. They are quickly forced into a labyrinth of passages beneath the castle, where the remainder of the movie plays out in Agatha Christie whodunnit fashion. Where do these butterflies come from and what's their agenda? What secrets and motives do the various players brought together in these tunnels hide?

Still not completely sure what the answer is myself, due to the subtitle & missing footage issues... that and the fact that several key players looked rather similar, so I wasn't quite sure who was who at times. Still, I was capable of appreciating the intrigue that I followed.

Being Tsui Hark's first movie, claimed by quite a few people to be his best, and one of the first of the "new wave" of HK movies that killed the old school, I was curious as to just how wonderful and revolutionary it would be. Whilst it's difficult to judge the revolutionary aspect when I wasn't there at the time to put it into context, it's definitely clear that the movie was nothing like the Shaw/Golden Harvest style kung fu movies of the time. The elaborate layers of plot, moving like shadows across the tunnel walls, was a far cry from the revenge-based movies of Chang Cheh or the goofy comedy of Sammo Hung. A little reminiscent of some of Lau Kar Leung's movies, perhaps, but played much darker.

The visual style is quite different to the soundstage based productions too... shots of butterflies and caterpillars are perhaps meant to evoke some of King Hu's atmosphere, but the dark tunnels and ragged costumes are something else entirely. The action scenes clearly show signs of Tsui's future interests too - the camera is no longer content to sit back and watch the fight, but it gets right in there with the fighters like it might start throwing punches itself. There's a little bit of wire-work in there too that helps put the movie in the wuxia genre rather than kung fu.

Those who say that it's Tsui Hark's best work, however, are making difficult claims to support. Sure it's a good movie, but better than Zu? The Blade? OUATIC? ACGS? No, not really. I suspect that elitism is probably the main thing that leads people to say this. Perhaps if I saw it widescreen & legibly subtitled I'd change my mind though :)

Do I recommend picking up the VCD? Hmmm, no... I think if you've got the patience it would be better to wait for a widescreen print to materialise from somewhere. I know that such prints are in circulation, so somebody is bound to slap one on a DVD at some point. On the other hand I don't regret watching it now - possibly if I'd waited much longer for a better version, I would have built anticipation up too high to possibly enjoy the movie. If you must get the VCD, make sure you've got a Malata or plan to watch it on a PC, because the normal overscan on a TV is enough to turn the subtitles from difficult to follow to impossible.
Reviewer Score: 8

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