Director: Lou Ye (2003)
Rain-soaked badly lit streets, bloody gun battles, and 1930s panache - all bit-players in a gamut of elements in a high-profile product that defies easy classification.
Touted for months as a breakthrough release, Purple Butterfly exposes new facets in international star Zhang Ziyi's acting persona, now advanced enough to encompass sultry, chain smoking assassin characters dabbing in the occasional steamy love scene.
To cut a somewhat confusing two-hour story short, Zhang plays Ding Hui, a plain Northeasterner who shacks up with Japanese ex-pat Itami (Nakamura Toru) in the days of Japanese occupation. Their relationship comes to a grinding halt when he returns home, until a few years later, she finds work as an operative for a covert anti-occupation cell called Purple Butterfly.
Known outside the organization as Cynthia, Ding carries out intelligence and wet-work assignments until loverboy Itami stages a comeback working for the Japanese counter-resistance establishment. The two maneuver and fret around each other, embroiling several supporting characters in their lethal waltz, including inadvertent underground recruit Si Tu (Liu Ye), his slain girlfriend (Li Bingbing), and cell commander Xie Ming (Feng Yuanzheng).
With its dialogue and event sequence scarcely bearing clarity in mind, Purple mostly succeeds as a convincing period piece, with superb atmosphere, sets, costumes and soundtrack.
However, the thing is simply too surreal and detached to qualify as genuine historic work. Also, surprisingly enthralling bullet-opera moments bolster celebratory acceptance of the film's accomplishment. Seldom have we seen such an abattoir outside traditional Chinese patriotic cinema.
As for cast and performances, well, none truly exceed their potential, save for Miss Zhang who's more than acceptable in a role that, by her previous standards, ventures into uncharted territory. It's always pleasing to witness such branching out.
With a striking finale warning of the horrors inherent in humanity's potential for bold-faced sadism, Purple Butterfly is bewildering and unique enough a package to deserve undivided attention.
(cityweekend.com.cn February 12, 2004)