Folks who were confused by the parallel storytelling in Chinese helmer Lou Ye’s arthouse fave, “Suzhou River,” are going to be completely confused by the narrative in his third feature, “Purple Butterfly.” An extremely simple story of anti-Nipponese underground fighters in ’30s Shanghai, just prior to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, pic is an often remarkable, often infuriating lateral spin on genre material that desperately needs another sesh at the editing table. Rushed to compete at the Cannes fest, film looks to split crix down the middle. But with 20 minutes taken out of the picture — largely its self-indulgently slow passages — this could prove an ambitious, worthy successor to “Suzhou,” with arthouse potential.
Yarn opens with a prologue in Manchuria, northeast China, in 1928, where a young Chinese woman, Cynthia (Zhang Ziyi, from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Rush Hour 2”), is having a clandestine affair with a Japanese man, Itami (Toru Nakamura). When he has to return home for military service, she’s devastated. Then, her world is totally destroyed when her elder brother, who works on an anti-Japanese newspaper, ends up dead after an attack in the street by Japanese rightists.
Many of the pic’s stylistic tics are contained in this 15-minute section: a cold, blue-gray look to the images; handheld camerawork in which there’s much play with out-of-focus shots; minimal dialogue; a lack of information fed to the viewer; and powerful use of symphonic music (by Joerg Lemberg) to knit together montage sequences.
Cut to Shanghai, three years later, where a young couple — switchboard operator Tang Yiling (Li Bingbing) and her fiancé, Situ (Liu Ye) — are introduced. While they dance romantically inside his apartment, outside in the street demonstrators protest the growing Japanese incursions into China from the northeast.
Some unspecified time later — the main tranche of the film is, in fact, spread over six years, 1931-37 — Tang receives a telegram that Situ is returning to Shanghai and goes to meet his train. At the crowded railroad station, various forces are also gathering, including Cynthia, who’s since moved to Shanghai, changed her name to Ding Hui and joined a resistance group code-named Purple Butterfly.
In a big set piece, which starts slowly and builds, along with the music, into a gripping sequence of total panic, violence erupts as Situ is mistaken for an assassin sent to help Ding and her associates. Tang is accidentally wounded by Ding in the shootout, the assassin is killed, and Situ barely escapes with his life. Ding & Co. later contact Situ and arrange for a hand-over of the briefcase the assassin was meant to deliver to them at the train station.
Ding, and her chief associate, Xie Ming (Feng Yuanzheng), realize they’ve been set up and suspect a traitor in their ranks. Meanwhile, who should arrive in Shanghai but Itami, now a Japanese intelligence officer charged with hunting down Chinese resistance fighters. Arresting Situ, whom he knows has been unwittingly caught in the middle, he persuades him to spy on their behalf against Ding and Xie, causing Situ to go off the rails.
Ding in the meantime has hitched up again with Itami, who’s seemingly not aware that she’s a member of the resistance. As the Sino-Japanese War officially breaks out, Ding and Xie’s plan to assassinate Itami’s boss, Yamamoto (Kin Ei), comes to boiling point.
Some of the above plot is not immediately apparent from the scraps of dialogue and limited info that’s on screen: Helmer Lou perversely makes his audience work overtime to make sense of what’s going on. Partly, this seems deliberate, to evoke the chaos of the time in Shanghai’s melting pot of various interests; partly, though, it seems plain perverse, and frequently works against audience involvement in the characters and their conflicted emotions.
Though the pic almost grinds to a halt in several self-consciously arty long takes and closeups, it’s also extremely invigorating when the pieces cohere, with some striking action sequences shot handheld with rapid cutting. Sense of oppressive claustrophobia in the city, heightened by apparently endless rain and gray skies, is also good.
Finale, set in the Japanese Club, springs several surprises. And the movie’s curious coda, which contains a brief, vital clue to the whole story of how the Japanese knew what they knew, looks set to become a major talking point. Large sections of the audience left baffled at the end of the Cannes press screening, though one interpretation is that the final sequence is, in fact, a flashback to some time prior to the finale.
Largely sans makeup, Zhang is subdued but resonant in her role as Ding, and most of the rest of the cast likewise. Nakamura handles his Mandarin dialogue OK, but like all the players is clearly under orders from Lou to underplay his emotions. As Xie, Feng is a strong physical presence. Li, in the crucial role of the switchboard operator, could have done with more screen time.
Period production design and costumes have a natural, lived-in look, and details of life at the time are economically but flavorsomely drawn. There’s a strong, atmospheric, 100-minute movie here somewhere, which hopefully helmer Lou may deliver with more time to reconsider post-Cannes.
For the record, vast majority of the dialogue is in Mandarin, with a few moments of Japanese and a snatch of Vietnamese from a landlady.