December 6, 2005
Purple Butterfly (2003) is Lou Ye’s follow-up to his dreamy Suzhou River (2000), a Wong Kar-Wai-esque tragic love affair. This movie is also a tale of doomed romance set in 1930s Shanghai. In some respects, this is Ye’s In the Mood for Love (2000) as Purple Butterfly is also a richly textured period piece about a love affair between two people that can never be together because of the dictates of their society. It’s a classic story of a couple who should be together but meet in the wrong place and time in history.
The film begins in 1928. Cynthia (Ziyi), a beautiful young Chinese woman falls in love with Itami (Nakamura), a Japanese man who is going back to his country for military service. Heartbroken, she returns to Shanghai and witnesses her older brother’s death at the hands of Japanese terrorists. She eventually changes her name to Ding Hui and joins an underground resistance group known as the Purple Butterfly that, in a few years, devises a plan to kill Itami.
Zhang Ziyi has such a wonderful, expressive face that Ye uses so well in the movie. For example, in one scene he captures the child-like glee on her face as she spots a cute knick-knack in a store window. In another scene, he shows the soul-crushing anguish on her face as she watches her brother and his friends blown apart on the street by a terrorist.
Purple Butterfly marks an interesting evolution in Ye’s career. It is a much more politicized movie than Suzhou River as Ye shows the Chinese people fighting against and protesting Japanese occupation on the streets of Shanghai. The director captures the volatile, tragic nature of the times. Innocent bystanders are killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and how one event can change your entire life – for Cynthia it is the death of her brother and for Szeto (Ye) it is the death of his lover.
Lou Ye’s film shows how revenge is a powerful motivator that transcends politics. It is the reason why Cynthia and Szeto do what they do in the movie. Tragedy has touched them so deeply and so profoundly that revenge is the only option that they have for some kind of closure. In their eyes, those responsible must also suffer. And yet, the Purple Butterfly’s conclusion suggests that world events and politics ultimately eclipses what happens to these characters and what they do. They are at the mercy of fate and the machinations of history.
A theatrical trailer.