Purple Butterfly (2003) Movie Review

“Purple Butterfly” is a movie with the makings of a great film, but is unfortunately marred by a couple of silly decisions that should have been avoided. There is little doubt that Ye Lou (“Suzhou River”) is a talented filmmaker, but there is such a thing as making a film more complicated than it needs to be, a concept Lou seems unable, or unwilling, to accept. As such, the narrative structure of “Purple Butterfly” progresses in a linear fashion until, out of the blue, Lou pulls some questionable editing gimmicks, thereby polluting the timeline unnecessarily. Why did he do it? I suppose only the director can answer that, and he’s keeping mum.

“Purple Butterfly” stars Zhang Ziyi (most recently seen in Zhang Yimou’s “The House of Flying Daggers”) as Cynthia (Xin Xia), a member of Purple Butterfly, an underground resistance group fighting the growing Japanese influence over China in 1930s Shanghai. Purple Butterfly is led by the strong but quiet Xie Ming (Yuanzheng Feng), and the group has targeted the highest ranking Japanese military official in the city, a man name Yamamoto, for assassination. Alas, their plans implode when a case of mistaken identity leads to a shootout at a train yard, with a young man name Szeto (Ye Liu) stuck in the middle.

In order to stop Purple Butterfly’s activities, the Japanese transfer over Itami (Toru Nakamura), an intelligence officer, to take over the Shanghai office. As it so happens, Itami and Cynthia once had an affair when they were younger and in Manchuria, leading Xie Ming to send Cynthia back into Itami’s arms in an attempt to gain inside information in order to complete their assassination of Yamamoto. But as the star-crossed lovers circle one another, each hiding secrets and putting their own agendas into action, it becomes increasingly difficult to know who is playing whom.

Even though it runs almost two hours, one gets the feeling that there was a lot more to “Purple Butterfly” that never made it out of the editing room. Or, to be more specific, there was a lot of dialogue that needed to be said, but was never written. As a result, much of “Butterfly” features close-ups of actors faces as they silently meditate on their situation. Working from his own minimalist script, Lou showcases a wealth of camera tricks, many of them dependent on the strength of the actors to pull off any given scene. In that respect, he’s chosen brilliantly.

Rightfully at the top of the marquee is Zhang Ziyi, who does a fine job in what might be her most demanding role to date. Without very much exposition to fill in the blanks, it’s up to Ziyi and her co-stars to tell us what we need to know through their eyes, through their hesitant glances, their forlorn looks, or perhaps through their non-actions. It’s to Ziyi’s credit that she manages to convey her character’s motivations, hopes, and fears without resorting to wild facial expressions. A scene toward the end, when she realizes that all her group’s plans have come undone, is heartbreaking in its simplicity and intensity. It is no wonder Ziyi is poised for international stardom. The woman has chops.

Given the unfortunate task of working opposite Ziyi is Japanese actor Toru Nakamura (“2009: Lost Memories”), a well-traveled veteran of foreign film productions. Here, Nakamura looks as if he’d rather be somewhere else, and as a result comes across as little more than a sounding board for Ziyi’s tour de force performance rather than the interactive participant the movie requires him to be. It’s not that Nakamura is a terrible actor; it’s just that he’s not terribly good. Stilted, wooden, and dull, Nakamura’s Itami is unreadable, not because the actor is good at hiding his character’s motivations, but because, one suspects, Nakamura just doesn’t have the skills to pull off a subtle performance, and instead has fallen back on a look of permanent disinterest instead.

More successful is the rest of the cast, including Yuanzheng Feng as the somber resistance leader, who has a history with Cynthia that he can’t shake, and doesn’t want to. Also compelling is Ye Liu, who is soon to be seen in the Hollywood production “Dark Matter”, as well as another co-starring role with Zhang Ziyi in the upcoming “Jasmine”. As Szeto, Liu is a young man whose happy world is crushed in a wild burst of gunfire and death at the train yard, a violent encounter not of his making that also takes away the love of his life.

It’s in the shootout at the train yard that best describes the action in “Purple Butterfly”: chaotic, sudden, and pointless. The film itself is a dreary experience, with 1930s Shanghai seemingly see-sawing between only two possible weather patterns — drenching rain or overwhelming mist. Prostitutes fill the sidewalks and student protestors fill the streets, while the rest of the citizenry try to get by as best they can, hoping not to get caught up in the chaos. One of Lou’s more effective conceits is the invisibility of the Japanese agents, who always seems to be everywhere except in the movie’s frame.

“Purple Butterfly” is an intriguing film, with subtle, mesmerizing performances by Zhang Ziyi and Yaunzheng Feng. Unfortunately there are missteps, such as an unnecessarily tainted timeline and a running time that screams padding. Still, there’s a lot here for the ambitious viewer to dig through, from the film’s handling of its Sino-Japanese conflict as embodied by Purple Butterfly and Itami’s organization, to the unexpected insertion of the innocent Szeto, who has no dog in the fight, but is nevertheless forced at gunpoint into the equation. Szeto is the civilian, the people, caught between two warring factions, wanting no part of either, but not given a choice in the matter.

When all is said and done, one does wish “Purple Butterfly” had been a little more selective in what it kept and what it left on the cutting room floor. There are rumors that the film is missing a 2-minute love scene between the Chinese Cynthia and the Japanese Itami — a “sleeping with the enemy” sequence, if you will. This would certainly explain why Cynthia’s reunion with Itami cuts abruptly to what appears to be a post-coital scene, with the atmosphere of the scene one of either intense sex or perhaps rape. It’s rumored that the Chinese Government, who censors and approves all Chinese movies before allowing their release, required this edit. This Government intrusion may also explain the film’s epilogue, which shows black and white newsreels of Japanese atrocities during World War II, thereby sliding “Purple Butterfly” dangerously close to the land of Chinese nationalistic propaganda.

Ye Lou (director) / Ye Lou (screenplay)
CAST: Ziyi Zhang …. Cynthia/Ding Hui
Ye Liu …. Szeto
Yuanzheng Feng …. Xie Ming
Toru Nakamura …. Hidehiko Itami
Bingbing Li …. Yiling
Kin Ei …. Yamamoto

Buy Purple Butterfly on DVD