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The Butterfly Murders

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 09/18/2003

This is Tsui Hark's debut feature; I was pretty hyped to see the first in what would become one of the strongest outputs of films (regardless of language or geographic area) in its' history. Upon my first viewing, though, I felt like I had hit a roadblock. Most of Tsui's movies are known for having dense stories, and this one is certainly no exception. Even though the base plot is fairly simple -- various groups (clans) have been drawn to a castle where they have met their untimely deaths, and the latest group must try to unravel the mystery before they become victims themselves -- there are more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, and since of the events and characters are based (albeit loosely) on actual Chinese history, Western viewers could find matters a bit confusing to say the least. (I was relieved upon reading other reviews, some written by native Cantonese speakers, that also had trouble following the plot.)

To its' credit, the plot does become more cohesive towards the end, perhaps not coincidentally as the number of characters gets reduced. However, what is left -- despite all the posturing and (not so well) hidden symbolism during most of the movie -- becomes yet another revenge picture. Still, I enjoyed The Butterfly Murders; it seems to be all about mood and it creates a dark sense of despair that wraps around the viewer like a blanket. The action scenes are also done well -- of course, they're not on the level of Tsui's later films like Once Upon a Time in China, but there's still a good deal of high-flying antics and inventive weapons to go around.

Reviewed by: Inner Strength
Date: 12/05/2002


Reviewed by: ButterflyMurders
Date: 06/05/2002
Summary: Tsui Hark...mmm...Tsui Hark....

Hey look, this film has my name on it! Well, almost. I'm missing a word.

The first thing that surprised me was the theme song. Guess who was singing it? George Lam, starting out and attempting to sound like Lor Mun.

And now to the film. It has all the hallmarks of later Tsui Hark films-multi-layered plots and lots of characters. And it's the latter that's frustrating with "The Butterfly Murders". It's not that there's a lot of characters in the film, it's that they're all introduced rather hastily and some drop in and out of the action. As this is basically a mystery whodunit film, understanding the character's motives and why they are present plays a large part in understanding what's happening. And, as it's a challenge to even sort out who's who, it takes a few viewings before the story (which I found was slightly convulted with some motives not explained properly) becomes clear.

The quality of the print didn't help. A lot of parts are very dark, which is just brilliant </sarcasm> as most of the action takes part in a cave!

This is a film that requires a few watchings, but it's worth it. Besides, it IS Tsui Harks directorial debut. 7/10

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 03/04/2002
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

Reviewed by: runo_jp
Date: 06/15/2001
Summary: Butterfly murders

The first movie by Tsui Hark. I enjoyed it very much despite its obvious little budget. It already shows many of Tsui Hark’s “habits”. Some may be disappointed, but I would like to see it as a classic.

Reviewed by: RLM
Date: 05/08/2001
Summary: Not worth the time

Tsui Hark's initial attempt at a period martial arts film with no success. Incoherent story about betrayal among fighters. The villian uses killer butterflys to do his bidding. Much of the film takes place in a stone castle which was particularly boring to me. Most everyone dies. 1/10

Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 02/17/2001
Summary: just a warning

i bought this vcd and the subtitles were bad (for english)
the the beginning of the sentence starts off the screen and ends off the screen so you have been warned!!

Reviewed by: hokazak
Date: 12/09/1999

Tsui Hark's directorial debut.

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

One of Tsui Hark's first significant films, showcasing hisnow-familiar themes and filmmaking style. Strange, rambling action/adventure story with killer butterflies (it may be an adaptation of a novel - I can't remember).

[Reviewed by Iain Sinclair]