Purple Butterfly by Lou Ye (Review)

Purple Butterfly is often an arresting and breathtaking film but also a frustrating film to watch as well.
Purple Butterfly

Purple Butterfly debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where if left many people scratching their heads over its obtuse storyline and oblique acting. Subsequently, a new edit of the film was prepared in time for its North American première in Toronto. After having seen the new edit, I’m curious as to just what they altered from the original, because the new version was still incredibly obtuse and off-putting. In fact, it was probably the most obtuse film I saw all week, and its vagueness left me feeling rather disappointed by its end. But at the same time, it contained flashes of undeniable brilliance that lingered long after the credits roll.

Purple Butterfly opens in 1928 Manchuria, as the Japanese are making their military presence felt in Mainland China. Cynthia (Zhang Ziyi, looking considerably downcast and world-weary) is involved in a relationship with Itami (Nakamura), a Japanese man who has just been recalled to Japan for military service. Although their relationship seems rather tepid (the characters rarely speak to each other, and can barely make eye contact comfortably), Itami’s departure leaves Cynthia devastated. She returns to her brother, who is involved in an anti-Japanese movement, and is rather upset with his sister’s relationship with one of the enemy. Before Cynthia can straighten things out, a pro-Japanese suicide bomber attacks the movement and kills her brother.

The movie jumps forward to 1931 Shanghai, where we’re introduced to two more characters: Tang, a young switchboard operator, and her lover Szeto. Despite the increasing threat of a full-on Japanese occupation, the two manage to carve out their own peaceful little corner amidst the turmoil of the times. The two have been separated for awhile due to Szeto’s traveling, and when Tang receives a telegram announcing his return, she heads to station to await his train.

But while the camera is following her, we see that Cynthia (now named Ding Hui) has also arrived with some comrades, and are waiting for the train as well. A case of mistaken identity takes place, and Hui and her friends carry off Szeto, with Tang in pursuit. A gunfight breaks out amidst the ensuing struggle and Hui accidentally kills Tang. In one of the film’s most gutwrenching scenes, Szeto is forced to watch his beloved get cut down by gunfire, her blood splashing across his face. Despite his protests, his kidnappers insist that he is their contact and force him to hide out with a briefcase containing money, documents, and a pistol. He’s contacted again, this time by Hui at a brothel, but the Japanese police show up, wounding and arresting the poor, clueless Szeto.

Meanwhile, Itami has returned to Shanghai, and has been assigned to take over the Japanese occupation force. His primary mission is to eliminate Purple Butterfly, a resistance force that has been hounding the Japanese for quite some time now. Deciding that Szeto would make a perfect agent, Itami uses his anger and grief to manipulate Szeto into infiltrating the movement. However, Purple Butterfly also have an ace up their sleeve — Hui. They arrange for Itami to have a ​“chance” encounter with her, hoping it will stir up old feelings that they can use to their advantage. As these different pieces of the plot come together, a series of double-crosses and tragic events occur that cause all of the characters to doubt themselves, what they truly desire, and what they believe in.

Purple Butterfly is often an arresting and breathtaking film, full of lavish visuals, amazing direction, an intriguing plot structure, and solid performances from the cast. But more often than not, those very same things make it a frustrating film to watch as well.

Visually, the film is amazing. Director Lou Ye takes a page out of Wong Kar-Wai’s book, and utilizes the same sense of style and atmosphere, even lifting a shot or two from In The Mood For Love. But whereas Kar-Wai’s film used amazing color to counteract the repression of its main characters, Purple Butterfly delves headlong into a mood of oppression that perfectly mirrors the emotional damage that all of it characters are carrying. Most of the film takes place in dark, smoke-filled offices, dank hiding places, and cramped apartments. Meanwhile, the sun never shines outside. It’s always raining (or at least overcast), casting the city in a miserable grey pall that seems to soak the hope out of the film’s characters.

Much of the film is shot with handheld camerawork, which gives Ye amazing flexibility with his shots. One shot that sticks with me is Tang’s fateful trip to the train station to meet Szeto. The camera follows her as she walks through the train station, drifting through the crowd and then moving over to catch Hui’s arrival. It’s done in one unbroken take, and it’s captivating to watch, perfectly building up the suspense until it explodes in tragedy.

But Ye also favors incredibly close-up shots, getting in so tight that every single movement throws off the focus, with much of the action taking place in a blur. It’s an unsettling feeling, being that close to these scarred individuals. As with the film’s grey atmospherics, his camerawork perfectly mirrors the sense of oppression and fear that these characters operate under, afraid that any emotional outburst might open a hole in their armor and provide some weakness that could be used against them. But it gets too claustrophobic, and you might be tempted to leave the theatre or hit ​“Pause” so you can actually take a breath.

However, the film’s biggest weakness is its pacing and structure. About halfway through, the film gets mired in its own sense of melancholy. Ye lets the film sink too far into itself, throwing out flashbacks and drawing out scenes that go nowhere and do nothing for the film. The film’s narrative becomes too disjointed to stand up under its sullen moods, and it eventually collapses in on itself. The characters become isolated from one another, motionless as they wallow in their misery or contemplate the price of their betrayals and failures.

Unfortunately, Szeto gets lost in all of that. Szeto is the most compelling character to watch, partly because he’s the only one who ever shows any emotion, and partly because he’s the only one that seems to have motivation to do anything. Sure, Itami and Hui have their own demons, but their loss and suffering pales in comparison to Szeto’s, which cuts through you like a knife. After all, this is a man whose love was gunned down before his eyes, and whose grief and pain are being used to manipulate him. Liu Ye is absolutely amazing to watch as he portrays a man driven so close to the brink that you have no idea what he’ll do, and it’s a shame the movie doesn’t devote more time to building up his story.

The film ends with a series of newsreels depicting the atrocities of Japan’s full-scale invasion in 1937, and it feels like an incredibly awkward way to end the film. Up until that moment, I found it very admirable that Purple Butterfly hadn’t picked sides based on characters’ nationalities. The film made it clear that everyone, both Chinese and Japanese, had performed terrible acts and suffered great loss. But the newsreel footage puts a very Chinese-centric focus on the film’s tragedy that cheapens the film. If the film undergoes another edit, this would get my vote for the first bit to hit the floor.

I had conflicting responses throughout Purple Butterfly. There were moments when I truly felt like I was in the presence of a great film and was completely drawn into its world. Even the dreariest of scenes and most ambiguous of actions resonated within me, and I was rocked to the core by Szeto and Tang’s story. But there were just as many times, if not more, when I felt like the film was holding me at arm’s length, hiding something from me within a maze of flashbacks, blurry shots, and impassive glances.

To the film’s credit, there were parts of it that lingered long in the memory, namely Szeto’s tragic plight. As underdeveloped as it was, that easily ranked as one of the most emotional pieces of cinema I saw all week at the Festival. But as a whole, Purple Butterfly felt like it was still a work in progress, with perhaps just one more edit required before it could become the truly great film it constantly hinted at.