To learn more about full-length shots I watched this film yesterday to try to find something I am looking for, for my project’s film form and for my perception to evolve. And this is a review from me as an ordinary audience who is simply appreciating this work.
I found this movie in a ranking list named ‘The Lousy Movies made by the 14 famous Chinese Directors’ and googled it out of curiosity. This film is Purple Butterfly by LOU Ye (‘LOU’ is the director’s last name in Chinese. Also. to maintain the particular sense of the pronunciations of Asian names, I choose to write their last names in capital letters ahead of the first names of the characters in this film), on which Douban.com grades by 6.4 and IMDB by 6.0. However, it is this lousy movie that makes me feel really hot in heart and body for the duration of 12 hours after watching and maybe, I had an intracranial orgasm.
LOU Ye is one of the leading directors of the sixth generation in China. ‘The sixth generation’ refers to those directors who was born in 1960s-1970s, the time of the Great Cultural Revolution, which meant a broken and desperate childhood to them; and their growth in the 80s-90s was again puzzled: abandonment and ablation of the outdated system and way of thinking, and inrush of new thoughts. Therefore, most of the sixth generation directors are critical and marginal; they are extreme and low-key, and their generation is ‘rebellious and introspective’. An LOU Ye film is like a pendulous cloud, talking about a situation or a condition instead of somebody or something.
The movie starts with the northeast China in 1928. XIN Xia was a girl from the northeast China; her elder brother published an anti-Japanese newspaper – Xinmin Bao, and on the very day that XIN Xia’s Japanese boyfriend Hidehiko Itami left her for Tokyo; she witnessed her brother was killed by a suicide ronin bomber; in this way, XIN Xia joined a non-governmental anti-Japanese underground organization with zilch and changed her name to DING Hui.
The story took place in 1931, after the “9.18 Incident”; in Shanghai vast crowds had been demonstrating against Japanese and the society was highly unstable. YI Ling, an operator of a telephone office, was going to meet her boyfriend SITU at Pudong Railway Station; however, SITU took the coat of the hitman sent by the underground organization by mistake; there were contact signs on the coat, a purple butterfly breast-pin and a rolled-up magazine in the pocket. XIE Ming and DING Hui, who went to the station to bring off the hitman, saw the signs and hauled SITU away; a gunfight broke out on the platform. In the duration, DING Hui killed SITU’s girlfriend by accident and SITU hid in a hotel with the intelligence data. From then on, DING Hui fell into endless guilty and panic, and the devastated SITU was caught and tortured by Japanese when he attempted to contact the underground organization again and deliver the intelligence.
At the moment, Hidehiko Itami, the former lover of DING Hui (XIN Xia), came to Shanghai a Japanese spy, who replaced Yoshikawa and became the liaison, working for Yamamoto, the person-in-charge of the Japanese espionage organization in Shanghai. And this Yamamoto was the assassination target of DING Hui’s team. XIE Ming et al, by failing to contact with the hitman, decided to complete the assassination by themselves, and the way to achieve this was to ask DING Hui to make up with Hidehiko Itami. On the one hand, DING Hui, under the covering identity as a nurse, tried to rekindle things with Itami again; and on the other hand, Itami set SITU free on the condition of more useful intelligence. SITU went back to his deceased girlfriend’s home to take his own life but interrupted by a knock at the door; that’s DING Hui. Eaten up with guilty, DING Hui could not help to pay a visit; SITU took this chance to access to DING Hui and her team and disclosed all the intelligence he obtained to Itami and DING Hui’s real identity as well. When DING Hui got to know what SITU had done, she tried to persuade her team not to take any action at once but failed. Her team decided to finish off SITU in secret, but he escaped.
DING Hui and Itami knew about the real identity of each other, and they both knew that the other side knew the truth, but no one talked. Itami invited DING Hui to go back living in Tokyo and promised to introduce her to his boss Yamamoto (the target) at the ball. Then, XIE Ming et al resolved to take this chance to fulfil the task but fell into an ambush and no one survived. SITU was nearly killed, but he mistakenly believed it was the Japanese who wanted to silence him after getting the intelligence; in this case, SITU thought of revenge; he went to the ball, shot dead Itami and injured DING Hui, then he was gunned down by the Japanese soldiers.
Everyone says that Suzhou River was the peak of LOU Ye’s powers, and Purple Butterfly revealed he was at wit’s end. But actually it’s not. Suzhou River is a literary movie, stimulating the storyteller’s perspective and telling the story to audiences directly with tons of asides; this ‘niche’ movie took a simple way out and brought down the house. Relatively, Purple Butterfly requires the audiences to watch with great conscientiousness; to understand the keynote, the acquaintance of the history is a must; it impressed me as a film for Virgos, every detail was well-managed and fitted the historical evidence, no faults and discrepancy, which made the movie excel 90% of the domestic historical ones. A matchbox in the movie is a reflection of Shanghai history in the Republic of China (1912-1949) (Matchbox is a symbol of boycotting Japanese products by Shanghai private enterprises in 1920s-1930s, and moreover the picture on matchbox of old Shanghai is a kind of cultural heritage). There is no aside and dialogues are extremely compendious (if it can be said in a word, no more words will be applied), only camera lens talk, which I think is main reason why the comments are full of ‘Do not understand’ or ‘Don’t know what’s the point’. By this token, Purple Butterfly is a true ‘niche’ movie; it screens its own target audience. It employed lots of full-length shots, scenarios without dialogues, incoherent montages and alternate and repeated frames, creating intense and flustered atmosphere through ‘scattered’ narrative manner that seemed to be slow; it is a restrained movie, scattered in form but united in spirit.
But in contrast, Suzhou River is indolent and uninhibited, so is Summer Palace. Suzhou River and Summer Palace are talking about individual unbridled freedom, and Purple Butterfly is talking much ‘greater’, greater than an individual or oneself. It’s talking about restraint rather than freedom. This was performed delicately and appropriately. Zhang Ziyi is the right actress to play the part of DING Hui. In the movie, her poker-faced performance made the role full and round. She probably made her best performance in Purple Butterfly. The first time a butterfly appeared in the movie was not the breast-pin in the station, it’s the swallow-tailed butterfly that flew into the room because of the rain in 20’32”; there were two of them and were caught by SITU and his girlfriend and kept in two separate glass pots. They flew up and down and dashed against the glass wall repeatedly; they confused the space inside the pots and the world outside, and could not fly out at all; the two of them kept flying towards each other but stayed in two ‘worlds’ all along. It’s just like DING Hui and Itami. The movie told us those who fight for ‘freedom’ were not free or didn’t know what for, showed us their love and kill, their clouded vision of reality and its existence, their confusion of falsity and actuality, their constant misplacement and overlapping, as well as their strong and vulnerable inner world. Purple means ulterior and noble, lonely and terrifying; and butterfly represents beauty and ruin, free but sorrowful. HU Shi describes them by saying:” the one who left behind is lonely and pathetic, and doesn’t want to fly up to the sky alone at all.” It was the swallow-tailed butterfly that appeared in the movie, which is called ‘papilionidae’ in Europe and belongs to true butterfly; this is the real thing. But in China, swallow-tailed butterflies are the beautiful and sad incarnation of butterfly lovers and also fantasy, just like the blurred story ‘A Butterfly Dream of Zhuangzhou’ (The story is about Chuang Tzu. He had a dream and saw himself turn into a butterfly. It’s so real that he could not recognize himself. When woke up, he realized that he is still Chuang Tzu. But he did not know whether Chuang Tzu became a butterfly in his dream or a butterfly turned into Chuang Tzu in its dream. He also got confused about himself, Chuang Tzu or a butterfly. This is the combination of ‘doctrine’ in metaphysics and ‘physics’, i.e. Qi Wu, the equality of things.) The untouchable disillusion and illusion in the real world, very fabricated and very close to reality. It seems that the movie explored the concept of ‘butterfly’ thoroughly; the coat that was taken by the wrong guy was the trigger, which caused a succession of reactions, so-called butterfly effect. In fact, the plots are perfectly coherent, but love and hate coexist in there, which made the emotion and misunderstanding less straightforward like what I am doing; it’s completely a kind of brain work; in this respect, the director made the life of the audiences more difficult, indeed. There is a lot LOU Ye wants to say in the movie, but he is picky about the hearer; it is possible he did not make anything crystal, but also likely to be just appropriate, like a dragonfly skimming the water.
As to political preference, this movie remains neutral: DING Hui’s (XIN Xia) brother insulted Japanese on his newspaper before getting killed in revenge; when DING Hui closed her eyes and shot at the crowd, she knew there must be somebody got killed (at that moment, I thought this leading lady was really ruthless, however, she was also terribly suffering); XIE Ming drove by SITU, shot at him twice and left him to Japanese, and warned DING Hui not to think about that ‘Jinx’ anymore; Itami hold SITU who was tortured badly and told him “I will help you” when setting him free; SITU wanted to kill himself, but didn’t have the guts; the anti-Japanese underground organization acted coldly and conducted assassination for many times, when they intended to finish off SITU, SITU could not imagine it was also Chinese people who were planning to do that; the revolutionary sexual relationship between DING Hui and XIE Ming was somehow like violation (in my opinion, sex is all about passion, so is revolution)… It is one of the few historical or political movies made by LOU Ye that stands in the middle. The story happened before Japan’s aggression against China, evenly filled with disgrace and cowardice, abhorrence and bewilderment, just like the dialog in the end – DING Hui wept out “I just want to cry”, XIE Ming repeated what DING Hui said “but we can still fight together”, and DING Hui asked back in tears “what for”, then they both went out silently. There is certainly another reason for the movie to remain neutral, i.e. at the time of the Republic of China (1912-1949), the underground organization belongs to neither parties, or we can say, not the Communist Party (for example, Summer Palace mentioned the political disturbance in 1989 that is one of the hot buttons of the Party, and was banned consequently). But the movie still questioned many unspeakable problems in silence.
If Suzhou River is an attempt of LOU Ye style, then Purple Butterfly should be the establishment of his taste. The wholly depressive style, the sense of shot and the downwardness of the gravity of picture composition, as well as the intentionally stuck cutting, repeated scenarios and overlapping frames, which together makes Purple Butterfly much better than the overpraised Suzhou River, not on the same level at all. My heart had felt the heavyweight from beginning to end. An LOU Ye film is doubtlessly an LOU Ye film. Many people could not understand Purple Butterfly because of their ignorance of the director; the Purple Butterfly is too much about LOU Ye.