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Purple Butterfly

Directed by Lou Ye with Zhang Ziyi, Liu Ye, Tru Nakamura, Li Bingbing, cinematography by Wang Yu, Music by Jrg Lemberg, color, 2003 

DVD cover

By 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.  

"Purple Butterfly" is the antithesis of the attention-deficit/mentally deficient youth culture whose god is impatience and whose devil is boredom.

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.


There 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 Purple."


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.


There 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. 

It 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 can still fight together.  And we agreed.  He asks her how she feels now and she replies, not bad, at least we're still alive.  He says: At least you are still alive.  What are we fighting for? she asks. He cocks his pistol and says it's time to go.

We 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 our puzzles.

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 questioning.  

They survive, until they die.

Zhang 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.

Sveto 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.

Li 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 Bingbing's side.  

Gunshots ring out and Li Bingbing is shot dead in the ensuing panic.

Sveto 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 tresses.

Erika Borsos ("pepper flower") commented on the film at 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."

Sveto 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.

William Cahoon of Virginia noted September 22, 2010 in the comments on the film at that "The music from the Very (and I Mean Very) romantic dance listed in the film credits as 'Could Not Get Your Love' - However it is available on Amazon MP3 under the title of 'De Bu Dao De Ai Qing (This Love is Not For Me)' sung by Yao Lee. It is sold as a remix and as the best version which is the original. This dance scene, and music is extremely moving...After much looking I have not been able to find the music from the final 'dance' scene with Cynthia...and Itami....The film credits list it as 'The Moon Of A Garden Bridge' sung by Utako Matsushima."

Martial Arts Damsel "sellerd" from Cypress, Texas, wrote a comment April 14, 2008 on the film at that it was "Brilliant story of how love struggles to grow in harsh and blistering conditions. The tale is not one told in a straightforward manner. This is what alleviates any boredom that may seemingly occur due to the somewhat slow pace."

On July 11, 2005 "Cubist" observed in his comments on the film that the movie "shows how revenge is a powerful motivator that transcends politics. It is the reason why Cynthia and Szeto do what they do in the movie. Tragedy has touched them so deeply and so profoundly that revenge is the only option that they have for some kind of closure. In their eyes, those responsible must also suffer. And yet, the Purple Butterfly's conclusion suggests that world events and politics ultimately eclipses what happens to these characters and what they do. They are at the mercy of fate and the machinations of history."


Almost every scene is magnificently composed cinematographically.  Some cafe scenes are shot with faint reflections through windows.  Street scenes are observed obliquely from high angles in windows.  There is an unpredicatability to the film's tempo and pace.  When you are about to shout "get on with it," all hell breaks loose.  

The film is lyrically like "Citizen Kane" in its mythical indulgences and romances and also bears a tragic resemblance to "Macbeth."  

It is a masterpiece even if its flaw is some confusion in its timeline.

The acting is fabulous and fascinating.

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This film ranks 72nd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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