Carter B. Horsley
Lickety-split editing is very popular these days in many quarters and
while it can occasionally be very effective it also is camouflage for
so-so cinematography and direction. Being dizzy is not being
sober and slipshod is not shipshape.
Butterfly" is the antithesis of the attention-deficit/mentally
deficient youth culture whose god is impatience and whose devil is
A magnificent visual feast, "Purple
Butterfly" is a fascinating Chinese film noir although it really should
be called a film purple because of the bluish tints that pervade the
movie. This is not the "Think Pink" syndrome of "Funny Face," a
amusing schmear of color for stylistic grand effect. The first
half of the film has got plenty of action, romance and exotic plot
puzzlements and windowed angles.
is an extremely haunting and wonderful Art Deco-period bouncy song and
we are caught up in the "Last Tango in Paris" saturation of color and
emotion and this movie has absolutely nothing to do with "The Color
There is a close-up of
a man's face as he holds a gun to his chest. The close-up is a
very long shot with no dialogue. We keep waiting to hear a gun
blast and see a spurt of blood. They never come.
Eventually, after a long time, he doesn't shoot himself. We
don't know why. We are frustrated because we don't know why.
is a scene of the two principal lovers. She is in focus in the
foreground. He is unfocused in the background. Eventually,
the focus shifts but there is no dialogue. We are forced to focus
on them individually and to try to imagine what they might be thinking,
plotting, feeling, planning.
There is another scene of
a couple making very passionate, ferocious love followed by an a very,
very long stretch of post-coital exhaustion and retrospection and heavy
breathing that very slowly subsides.
is the guts of the movie as she finally asks her lover if something is
wrong. He says: No, he's alright. She asks if he
remembers the last
time. He says yes and you said we can't go on like this, but we
still fight together. And we agreed. He asks her how she
and she replies, not bad, at least we're still alive. He says: At
you are still alive. What are we fighting for? she asks. He cocks
and says it's time to go.
are thankful and stunned to discover the face of the man and realize
that this lover has been the mysterious gangster-like silent man with a
scowl, in marked contrast to the extreme handsomest of her Japanese
lover. The scene is off-putting because it is out-of-sequence.
What is going on? On a second viewing, it begins to make
sense, but even the second viewing does not fully satisfy and answer
It is a confusing film that makes no
concession to easy answers, simple plots. The characters are
sophisticated and ruthless, loving and committed, alert and
They survive, until they die.
Ziyi, the lustrous, sensational, martial arts star of "House of the
Flying Daggers," "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Hero," and "Crouching Tiger,"
here plays Cynthia, a pig-tailed girl who falls in love with a Japanese
boy in Manchuria in 1928. He eventually has to return to Japan
and a few years later she is in Shanghai and a member of Purple
Butterfly, a terrorist group seeking to get the Japanese out of China.
A leader of Purple Butterfly is Xie Ming, played sternly and
forcefully by Feng Yuanzheng. Her brother is shot while
distributing leaflets and the shooter is a terrorist with explosives
strapped around his chest and he blows himself and two members of the
Purple Butterfly up as Cynthia watches in terror.
Another young woman, Tang Yiling, played by Li Bingbing, has fallen in love with Sveto, played by Liu Ye.
arrives in a train in a compartment he shares with Itami, played by
Toru Nakamura, who is returning from Japan. Sveto is in a rush to
meet Li Bingbing and as he rushes out of the train compartment he takes
Nakamura's bag without realizing it's not his.
Bingbing walks down a very, very long train platform on her way to
greet Sveto and in the tracking shot we see a large black car moving in
the same direction across the track until it eventually discharges a
couple of people, one of whom is Cynthia, who is now called Ding Hui,
and the couple then climb two flights of stairs to cross over to Li
Gunshots ring out and Li Bingbing is shot dead in the ensuing panic.
is captured by Xie Ming and when the bag he was carrying is opened it
contains a dossier on Purple Butterfly. Xie Ming believes the
group should disband but eventually he and Ding Hui decide she must
rekindle her affair with Itami so that they can get to the leader of
the Japanese secret service.
Itami, of course, cannot
resist Ding Hui's charms as she has shed her pigtails and drab clothes
and now is quite stunning with a strong pink lipstick and long black
Erika Borsos ("pepper flower") commented on the film at amazon.com that "This film is deeply
intense. There is often silence that is thick with meaning. The camera often
tells much of the story, honing in on the actors and actresses faces....the
spartan rooms....the city scapes/ scenes....the commotion of workers going to
and from work....the riots, protests and rebellions....the crowds of people at
the railroad station in Shanghai....Times are tense, the atmosphere is ripe for political change and explosive
events. Itami is called back to Japan to serve in the military and their brief
but very passionate love affair is cut short. The film is
impressionistic and surreal in how it portrays events and relationships....Cynthia again enters Itami's
life and becomes personally involved renewing their love affair but with
ulterior motives. However, Itami is not who he used to be and neither is Cynthia
the same person she was. Unknown to Itami, she is now an assassin and
revolutionary. Itami asks Cynthia to return to Tokyo with him, he even arranges
for legal authorization with his boss. Itami and Cynthia attend a party at the
Japanese Club, where they dance to a very haunting and beautiful Chinese tune,
called "A Garden Bridge". The events which transpire at the party are
jaw-dropping. The twists and turns of the plot are unpredictable and very
satisfying. The ending will astonish the viewer...At the very end of the film,
there is actual black and white film footage of the Japanese invasion of Nanking
around 1937 which brings 'full' closure on the film. This is a most astonishing
complex story with exceptionally artistic cinematography and great acting."
goes to the Japanese Club and starts shooting and kills Ding Hui
shortly after Itami has told her that she has done her job well and so
has he as he arranged to have Xie Ming shot.