by Jay Seaver
Yes, America, Zhang Ziyi does in fact do movies other than art-house martial arts flicks. Take, for instance, Purple Butterfly, the new film from Lou Ye (director of the well-regarded Shinzou River), which features no kung fu at all. It may not quite reach the heights of Shakespearean tragedy to which it aspires, but if it's a failure, it's an interesting, ambitious one.The movie opens in 1928 Manchuria, where Ziying's Cynthia is a pigtailed student. There's some tension with her brother and his friends associates because of her Japanese boyfriend, Hidehiko Itami (Toru Nakamura); they publish a newsletter urging people to boycott Japanese goods. When Itami returns home, the ice thaws a bit, right before she witnesses her brother accosted by an angry Japanese man with a knife, as well as something worse.
"The only question is, just how last-act-of-Hamlet will it be?"
Flash forward three years to 1931 Shanghai. Here, we meet Stetko (Ye Liu) and Liling Tang (Li Bingbing), a happy enough young couple. Liling works as a telephone switchboard operator, and she's about to meet Stetko at the the train station, where he's returning from a business trip. He picks up his seatmate's jacket, though, and the purple butterfly pin identifies him as a member of a radical group (if Japan hadn't recently invaded Manchuria, you'd probably call them terrorists). A violent case of mistaken identity ensues, as this man was bringing information to the group's leaders, Xie Ming (Yuanzheng Feng) and Cynthia (now going by Ding Hui), about the new Japanese spy/factory boss arriving from Tokyo - Itami.
There's a lot of potential in this setting, and the first third is quite strong indeed. Dialog is sparse as characters are introduced, but Yu Wang's cinematography is striking. The jumps from stillness to violence are well-handled, and there's something sad and sweet about Liling's trip to the train station on a trolley; she's pretty and modern, and so intent on seeing Stetko again that it lulls us into being nearly as oblivious to the protests and burning buildings along the route as she is. It's a great evocation of a nation on the brink of war - there are zealots next door to people trying to live a regular life, unaware that their world is about to be turned upside down.
The last act is fairly strong, too - we know, early on, that this cannot end happily. Too many people have allowed themselves to be defined by their tragedies for us to seriously believe many can raise themselves above that and start a new life; the only question is, just how last-scene-of-Hamlet is it going to be? There's a nice little epilogue, too, which leads us to re-evaluate Cynthia a little, as well as reminding us how innocent Liling started out.
But in between, the film meanders and becomes needlessly confusing. Part of this is a result of watching it subtitled. I initially thought Liling was Cynthia, just a few years older and with a more grown-up haircut. Stetko and Itami look just similar enough that my attention being drawn to the bottom of the screen and not associating a voice with a face made it harder to sort the plot out. But in some cases, the story just isn't told very well. There are occasional cuts to a character that elicit the response "hey, wait a minute, I'm pretty sure he/she is dead" (he/she is, in fact, dead; I guess this is to prime us for a later, sustained flashback); when one character refers to another being a Japanese spy, my response was "since when?"
Another issue is that espionage is a cold, heartless business. It's not unreasonable to find Xie Ming more dislikable than Itami for a good chunk of the movie, and the three year jump in time means that we don't really get a chance to see Cynthia's soul being eroded. Not that it's a bad idea to reflect that these people could be just as monstrous and cold-blooded as the invaders they're fighting, but in that case, the end credit sequence, WWII film showing Shanghai in wreckage, seems a bit disingenuous, like "see, the Purple Butterfly types weren't nearly as bad as the Japanese - they didn't do this."The main problem, though? There's never any heat between Zhang and Nakamura. To be an effective thriller, there has to be some doubt where their loyalties will lie, that they may eventually choose each other over their countries. But there isn't; the movie becomes a chess game until trying to retroactively add emotional involvement. And it almost manages it. Almost, but not quite.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11185&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/31/05 12:59:49