Purple Butterfly (Zi hudie)

China (2003) Dir. Lou Ye

To arthouse or not to arthouse, that is the question. Revenge dramas are hardly known for their compatibility with poetic cinema, and while directors don’t have to stick rigidly to established templates, given the usual intricacy of the plots, it helps if your audience has half a clue as to what is going on.

I’m not familiar with director Lou Ye but if I was, I’d have been better prepared for this convoluted tale set in Japanese occupied Manchukuo, formerly Manchuria. The story begins in 1928 where the romance between Chinese student Cynthia (Zhang Ziyi) and Japanese classmate Itami (Toru Nakamura) is interrupted when Itami is called back to Japan.

Later in 1931 Shanghai, telephone operator Yiling (Li Bingbing) and boyfriend Szeto (Ye Liu) are also separated until his return in 1937. Arriving by train, Szeto is mistaken for a member of resistance group Purple Butterfly leading to a shootout in which Yiling is killed in the crossfire. Szeto is arrested by the Japanese and eventually released but his anger drives him to seek revenge.

But there is more – when Itami also returns to Shanghai in 1937 it is as an undercover agent for the Japanese secret service, hoping to take Cynthia back to Japan as his wife ahead of Japan’s invasion of China. However, Cynthia has since joined Purple Butterfly following her brother’s death at the hands of the Japanese and is in a relationship with resistance leader Xie Ming (Feng Yuanzheng).

This is a very frustrating film. One on the hand we should applaud Lou Ye for taking a chance with an established genre and doing something different with the presentation, but on the other hand, you can go too far in that direction at the expense of the story and character development, and end up alienating the audience in the process.

I’m sure there are many who will see this is a stunning piece of art and more power to them, and maybe it will make sense on a second viewing but this review is based on the first one and you know the old adage about first impressions. Ye certainly left an impression with Purple Butterfly – I just can’t decide if it is good or bad.

Leaping out at us from the onset is the archaic hazy veneer of the visuals, reminiscent of gritty 70’s and 80’s British TV dramas and not a film made in 2003. It aids us feeling back in the moment of 1920’s/30’s China and brings with it a grittiness that almost oneiric, thanks in part to the omnipotent blue hue imbued into the picture, akin to an early 80’s pop video.

Dialogue is sparse, which isn’t always a problem but becomes one if we can’t tell what the characters are thinking or feeling. Excessive exposition harms a script but we get to learn practically nothing about the main players, making it very difficult to sympathise with them. Cynthia and Itami barely say two words to each other – nor smile or regard each other with any kind of romantic interest –  so how are we are supposed to believe they are in love?

And being in a relationship that politically is a “forbidden love” should be a major source of concern with regard to social disapproval in such fraught times but none of that seems to exist here. The film is 127-minutes long so there is plenty of time to flesh out the characters, establish their personalities and give us a reason to care about them, but Ye doesn’t want to throw us that particular bone.

The other young couple Szeto and Yiling fare a little better with a moody montage of happy nights out together, Yiling at least every bit the innocent girl in love, making her death suitably tragic. It’s a shame Szeto’s vengeance isn’t anywhere near as exciting or commensurate in its emotional impact – in fact, unless I missed something, he vanishes for a large chunk of the film, popping up every now and then.

Because the mise-en-scene is largely one of close proximity and immersion, the camera rarely stays still, sticking close to its subjects, often not bothering with being in focus either. So much is lost through this – maybe incidental, maybe important – becoming an annoying motif of Ye’s artistic pretensions along with the often endless shots of the characters staring into space with nary a hint of their emotions mindset.

In fairness to Ye, the manic camerawork does relay a palpable sense of urgency and chaos during the right moments but even then this can be overused to the point the entire screen is one big blur of confusion – the shootout where Yiling was killed is a prime example; everything is moving about in panic, but what and who we are watching is largely undefined and indiscernible, save for a few brief close-ups of the shooters.

And there are some striking and mesmerising tableaux to treat the eyes, the melancholy of the suffused blue tint earning its keep when the mood calls for it. The editing is a mixed bag of masterful and downright obtuse, and unless I’m mistaken, I believe the chronology of the story is altered in the final act, not that this is made any clearer.

Regardless of whether I “got it” or not (probably not), the shining beacon of this film is Zhang Ziyi, delivering another effortless performance of a complex human being driven by her confused emotions when her loyalty is compromised. Despite Cynthia being presented as an ordinary, unglamorous woman Ziyi’s lustrous presence is the only thing that cuts through the film’s foggy aesthetic.

Purple Butterfly may or may not be a good film; there is definitely one in there but Ye’s artistic indulgence prevents it from surfacing. More tell with the show and an edit that favours the narrative would make this more satisfying, but it certainly is something I won’t forget in a hurry.