Lou Ye’s 2000 Suzhou River daringly transplanted Vertigo to Shanghai and transformed the city’s canals into an urban stream of consciousness. Following the misty Suzhou River further into genre territory, Lou’s Purple Butterfly is nearly as waterlogged and no less stylish—part action flick, part love story, and part posh historical pageant.
This wildly impressionistic period thriller—set before and during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai—stages Hong Kong gunplay against a moody Herrmann-esque score. Even more adroit in its soft jump cuts than Suzhou River, Purple Butterfly is a fabulously morose piece of work, perversely filled with time-wasting gazes and cigarette-shrouded silences. The abundance of close-ups is complemented by the paucity of dialogue—as well as a tendency to erupt into extended bursts of chaotic violence.
The only constants are the perpetual monsoon soaking Shanghai and actress Zhang Ziyi’s tragic beauty. Not exactly a clear-cut narrative, the movie was poorly received at Cannes in 2003; Zhang, who will shortly dazzle the city in House of Flying Daggers, is surely the reason why Purple Butterfly is flitting into release in a slightly shortened, revised version. But this ambitious film maudit has plenty going for it, including a terrific climax: Two duplicitous lovers (a Japanese agent and Zhang’s Chinese partisan), each having executed a power play against the other’s comrades, foxtrot to an endless Shanghai ballad.
Little is said but much is revealed as successive waves of emptiness and paranoia wash over their faces. Covers are blown, then minds. Finally, as gunfire breaks out, the entire nightclub erupts in a dance of death—a metonym for the movie itself.