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Friday, Nov. 18, 2005
Love and death in Manchuria
With his 2000 film, "Suzhou River," director Lou Ye clearly signaled his intention to follow in the footsteps of Asia's leading art-house director, Wong Kar-wai. Heavy on the urban ambience and melancholy, and steeped in themes of memory, obsession and thwarted love, "Suzhou River" -- which took top honors at Tokyo FILMeX in 2000 -- was quite the debut.
Ye's latest, "Purple Butterfly," a tale of love and betrayal in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the 1930s, sees him working with a bigger budget and a more assured style. The results fall somewhere between the epic sweep and sudden violence of "The Godfather," and the mesmerizing pace and palpable longing of "In the Mood for Love," told in the cross-cutting storytelling style of "21 Grams." If that sounds like pretty heavy company for a film to be keeping, rest assured that "Purple Butterfly" lives up to its billing.
Sometimes it's rather depressing to be a cinephile in the 21st century, and a quick scan of the reviews of "Purple Butterfly" is one such occasion. If it had been released in, say, 1973, and had been directed by Antonioni or Coppola, there would be heaps of serious criticism, analysis, books even, exploring what Lou has achieved with this film, whether it's the subtlety of the film's construction, or its individualist critique of political violence. However, in this era of attention deficit disorder, many reviewers have whined about how "confusing" or "slow" this film is.
Yeah, right. "Confusing" only if you don't pay close attention to what Lou is showing you; "slow" only if you can't sink into the film's hypnotic rhythm that, believe me, hits you that much harder when it does start to accelerate. Part of what throws people is they're accustomed to a film telling them things with words, while what this one does is show you things with images. Everything isn't spelled out.
In fact, the first 20 minutes or so of the film play almost like a silent movie. In the gray industrial landscape of 1928 Manchuria, with the most delicately suggestive fragments, Lou introduces us to lovers Itami (Toru Nakamura) and Cynthia (Zhang Zi Yi). He's the China-raised son of a Japanese railroad employee -- i.e., a colonizer -- and she's a young Chinese student, whose brother is involved in publishing a nationalist underground paper.
The day finally comes, though, when Itami is drafted and has to return to Tokyo, the tragedy of which is further compounded for Cynthia when Japanese fascists attack her brother.
Lou cuts suddenly to another pair of lovers, Szeto (Liu Ye) and Yiling (Li Bing-bing), in Shanghai, 1931, where antagonism between the citizenry and their Japanese occupiers barely registers on their starry-eyed bliss. They stay in their room and dance to classic Shanghai torch songs in a long, retro-cool scene that could have come straight from Wong's "2046." They spend the night together, and watch the end of this scene for the detail, the butterfly clinging to a lamp-chain.
Szeto has to leave town on business, and when he returns, Yiling rushes to the train station to meet him. Here's one of those scenes that Lou's critics point to as "slow," a long take where nothing, it seems, is happening, except for Yiling walking slowly down the platform. But look farther into the shot and watch that car pulling up on the other side of the tracks; Lou lulls us into the hypnotic rhythm of Yiling's footsteps, only to suddenly shift the focus across the tracks and to three people who emerge from that car.
It's a magnificent, extended shot that follows them from a distance, and just at the point where you think Lou's being totally random, wham, he shows us the face of one of them. It's Cynthia -- older and harder now, and working with the anti-Japanese resistance group, Purple Butterfly. All hell is about to break loose, and Szeto and Yiling will be caught in the crossfire.
The film becomes a tangle of personal rivalries as Itami, now working with the Japanese secret police, arrives in town. The underground wants to assassinate his boss, Yamamoto, so they send Cynthia -- now with the nom de guerre Ding Hui -- to seduce her former lover and ply secrets from him. The man ordering her to do this, Xie Ming (Feng Yuanzheng), may have his own feelings for her, and seems either jealous or suspicious of her. The joker in the pack is Szeto, who fled the violence at the train station after being mistaken for a guerrilla. The Japanese cops want to haul him in for questioning, while Xie Ming thinks he knows too much, and wants him dead. Ding Hui, retaining her humanity, wants to help him survive.
A taut, noir crescendo of doubt and paranoia builds as events cascade toward Yamamoto's assassination and the Japanese invasion of China. Yet amid the chaos, the drama plays out on the faces of these four individuals, torn between desire and vengeance.
Zhang Zi Yi, in particular, earns every closeup she gets, morphing from love-struck innocent shattered by loss into a hardened, wary fighter. Toru Nakamura's just as controlled; he's asking her to leave for Tokyo with him, and she seems to consider, but both of them keep their cards close and their characters' actual intentions are never fully revealed. Brilliant.
The film's narrative does, perhaps, jump around a bit too much for its own good. Certainly, the final scene coming after what seemed like the logical ending, raises more questions than giving answers. But a second viewing then becomes a whole new experience.