Francis Ford Coppola once said that if he'd had a budget of one dollar for his film BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, he wanted to spend 95 cents on set design and costumes, with the remaining nickel spent on the screenplay.
Lou Ye's PURPLE BUTTERFLY follows that approach, although I would argue which film spent more conservatively on its writing.
The premise begins in Shanghai in 1928, a few years before the Japanese invasion. Zhang Ziyi plays Cynthia, whose Japanese boyfriend is called back to Tokyo. Coincidentally, Cynthia's brother is murdered immediately afterward for his anti-Japanese activism. She then joins a militant movement named Purple Butterfly, presumably motivated by her brother's death. Three years later, when her former boyfriend is found back in Shanghai, she is given the task of targeting him.
The film is often beautifully shot, with a lot of handheld camera movement suggesting a cinema verite style. Period design is outstandingly rendered, with lots of detail deep into the shots. The street scenes, interiors, and costumes provide a Chinese version of a film noir.
This is a real slow-burner of a movie, surprisingly devoid of substantial plot development. The film bogs down in lots of wordless interplay, suggestion, and furtive glances. The actors must carry numerous, protracted scenes in this manner, often in oddly framed, off-focus shots and extreme closeups. Scenes seem to go on and on without ever meaning very much. Even with a repertoire of expressions as varied as Zhang Ziyi possesses, the brooding never seems to end.
What perplexed me the most about this film was that its climax occurs only a quarter of the way through, turning the entire rest of the movie into a confusing muddle of flashbacks and foreshadowing. The film then ends, incongruously, with an epilogue of stock documentary footage of the Japanese invasion in 1937-38. It is some very strange cinematic decision making, adding up to one of the most disjointed movies I've ever seen.
Lou Ye is undoubtedly a skilled director, and he has a fine group to work with. But I would suggest that for his future films, he should leave the screenwriting and storyboarding to others, so he can better showcase his talent.