by Greg Cwik Film Retrospective

Purple Butterfly | Lou Ye

May 14, 2019

Purple Butterfly is a film of dreamy realism, sometimes insoluble and suffused with a haze that is, at once, sepulchral yet sultry — a film about war and love, and the pain of both. It takes place in a constantly raining, Japanese-occupied Shanghai. (Critics compare the film to Wong Kar-wai, whose In the Mood for Love spawned innumerable progeny in the 2000s, and, while Lou obviously has different political and narrative sensibilities, his sumptuous conjuring of a bygone epoch is certainly redolent of Wong.) The prologue to Purple Butterfly, set in Manchuria, establishes the atmosphere, with plumes of smoke ascending into an etiolated sky. A sallow, bluish fog permeates the industrial cityscape as the camera drifts, settling on a man (Toru Nakamura) walking alone amid the throng of factory workers. A sense of sad and Sisyphean vicissitude roils like all that smoke billowing up into the sky. He falls in love with a Chinese woman (Zhang Ziyi), and they begin an affair, but he is called back to Japan for military service, devastating her. When her brother is killed by a Japanese zealot, she joins the clandestine resistance group Purple Butterfly. Three years later, he returns, now a secret police member trying to destroy Purple Butterfly, and they continue their love affair, which may now be an act of political subterfuge.

Purple Butterfly is operatic in its emotions and the ridiculousness of its plot contrivances; it harkens back to Casablanca, with its war-torn love.

The plot is deceptively simple and unapologetically melodramatic, but Lou reveals the details of the story with sibylline elusivity. Another man (Liu Ye) is mistaken by no fewer than two groups for an assassin, and he later actually becomes one. This wrong man mystery recalls, of course, Hitchcock, but Lou’s film is more doleful, sustaining a mood evocative of noir, rife with longing, regret, and the inevitability of anguish. The bedraggled city is hauntingly shot by Wang Yu, who also shot Lou’s Suzhou River in 2000; and the actors, lissome and lovely, seem as if their angular faces have been galvanized by the rain. Purple Butterfly is operatic in its emotions and the ridiculousness of its plot contrivances; it harkens back to Casablanca, with its war-torn love (“I want you to know, whatever happens, I will never forget our time in Manchuria”).  But in the end, it arrives at a bloody climax that Hitchcock, WKW, and Michael Curtiz would never attempt.

Part of Lou Ye: Every Face Is a Mask.

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