History is scant or purposefully blurred in Lou Ye’s abstruse Purple Butterfly, a war drama with Wongian aspirations. A number of years prior to the second Sino-Japanese War, presumably around the time of the Manchurian Incident, a top-secret organization called the Purple Butterfly takes arms against Japanese forces in Shanghai. Cynthia, alias Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi), and Hidehiko Itami (Toru Nakamura) engage in a clandestine love affair after—or is it before?—a pro-Japanese suicide bomber kills Hui’s brother and friends. Three years later, Hui’s is tearing shit up at a Shanghai train station with her Purple Butterfly posse, her rage fabulously burnt on Zhang’s face. Enter Szeto (Liu Ye), a man confused by no less than two groups of people for an assassin and who later becomes one. Seemingly edited at random, Purple Butterfly is madly and hauntingly impressionistic, except it strains to find its soul beneath its deliberately elliptical plot. The film’s sudden bursts of violence are shocking but as incoherent as the love story is contrived, at times suggesting a Sam Peckinpah script as directed by David Lean. Like Sun Zhou’s Zhou Yu’s Train before it, the film doesn’t work to make its audience believe in its lovers, assuming we’ll get by on the endless pageantry of lovelorn gazes and foggy pictorial interludes, fashion-mag put-ons that do very little to amplify the heart of a nation and its people.
Like Palm Pictures's Last Life in the Universe disc, the image quality on this Purple Butterfly DVD is problematic. The studio is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the DVD arena, but while they seem be doing a lot things better than most studios (edge enhancement is hardly a problem with any of their releases), there's still much work to be done: Purple Butterfly's cinematography has been overpraised, but if you dug some of the film's Smurfier-looking scenes, you may be troubled by the overall softness of the image. Blacks are mute-so muted in fact as to look blue.
Strictly for card-carrying members of the Zhang Ziyi Fan Club.