Judge Joel Pearce assures us that no psychedelic '70s rock bands were harmed in the making of this film.
"What are we fighting for?" -Cynthia
Equal parts arthouse drama and political thriller, Purple Butterfly is an interesting discovery for film noir fans. It does an excellent job of capturing the personal impact of war and the confusion that comes with resistance groups, but some may be turned off by how disorienting it can be.
Facts of the Case
Purple Butterfly takes place during the Chinese occupation by Japan in the 1920s and the subsequent resistant movement by Chinese nationalists. The film opens with the love affair of Cynthia (Zhang Ziyi, Hero) and Itami (Tôru Nakamura, 2009: Lost Memories) shortly before the occupation. When he is called away, she returns home to Shanghai just in time to see her brother murdered by a Japanese radical. She joins the Purple Butterfly resistance group, but things become complicated when Itami arrives in Shanghai several years later and becomes a target for the group. They become involved in a dangerous political game that can only end in tragedy.
That plot description makes the story sound so simple. In a lot of ways, it is a simple story, but it is told through a complex structure. The plot frequently jumps around, which makes the first half confusing. This structure mirrors the confusion and disorientation of the battle being fought. The characters are unable to trust one another, and the lines between one side and the other quickly begin to blur. Cynthia and Itami are enemies, after all, but have been lovers in the past. The confusion that the audience feels during the film is parallel to the confusions the characters experience, which may be enough justification for this disorienting style. The camera movement and angles throughout echo this confusion, so at least it seems consistent.
Viewer confusion aside, there's no denying the impressive level of skill that went into Purple Butterfly. It's a gorgeously shot film, although it has the bleakest backdrop I have ever seen. Evidently, the sun didn't shine once in Shanghai through the entire period, and there was heavy rain most of the time. This atmosphere of murky gray and blue is depressing and threatening, punctuated only by the bright reds of fire and blood in the streets. Although the tone and subject matter would easily support black and white, this use of color is remarkable and stunning, and adds a lot to the experience.
The performances are strong throughout the film.In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon we learned that Zhang Ziyi could kick any of our asses. Here, we learn that she is also a very talented actress. Her performance is sensitive and nuanced, using facial expressions more than dialogue to reveal her thoughts. She is still tough, and handles a gun just as well as she has handled a sword in her past roles. The rest of the performances live up to her effort, with the affiliations and alliances of each of the characters becoming important pieces in the convoluted puzzle of the plot.
Although the film is deliberately paced and character driven, the few action scenes burst off the screen with an energy I haven't seen since John Woo was still shooting in Hong Kong. The shots come out of nowhere, and these scenes are as unsettling as they are exciting. This is not really a war movie, though, just as the conflict never explodes into official war. Purple Butterfly is a film about personal experience, not the overall story of the Chinese resistance fighters. It accomplishes that well, and never tries to be more. Some moments are agonizing, especially during the conversations that Cynthia has with the men in her life. That's not necessarily bad, but it creates a level of discomfort that is rare in action movies. Purple Butterfly is an arthouse drama first and foremost, with heavy noir influences and hard hitting action moments. This blend of genres isn't going to thrill many people, but those who can wrap their heads around the jumble will find these aspects well-integrated.
The disc has one of the best transfers I've seen from Palm Pictures. Picture quality is generally excellent, with solid black levels and clear detail. The occasional grain looks unintentional at times. The only serious flaw in the image is serious haloing in the dark scenes, any time that things are out of focus. It's hard to tell whether it's a source or transfer problem, but it's pretty distracting either way. The sound mix is solid as well, with music and effects mixed into all channels. It's usually subtle, but packs a solid punch when the action scenes come around. Though the music is mixed into the rears better than ambient noises are, it's still a pleasing track overall.
The disc fails in the special features: there aren't any. A film this valuable and complex cries out for insight from the cast and crew, but this disc doesn't offer so much as a brief featurette.
Purple Butterfly is simply too dense and convoluted to be appreciated by a wide audience. Those who can handle the ambiguity and confusion of the first half will be rewarded by a powerful portrait of individuals trapped between their personal feelings and political obligations. If it had only been a little clearer, it could have been an instant classic.
Baffling storyline aside, Purple Butterfly is a challenging and unique thriller. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
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