To enjoy the Chinese-French film `Purple Butterfly,' some patience is required. To follow the story was hard for me (and I am a Japanese who knows the historical background of the film), but once you understand what is going on, you see the merits of this period romance. First, remember the following four characters.
Zhang Ziyi is Ding Hui/Cynthia, a Chinese girl whose brother is a member of one underground organization protesting against the Japanese invasion. The time is set in 1928, and the place is northern China, then called Manchuria. But one tragic thing happens to her brother, and she is also drawn into the activity of the organization.
Toru Nakamura, Japanese actor, plays Itami a Japanese whose father works as an interpreter in China. But young Itami must leave this country and his love Cynthia because he was drafted into the military service by the Japanese army. Three years later, Itami comes back to Shanghai as Japanese military officer, who had been trained for espionage in China. Now Itami meets Cynthia again in this city, but this time Cynthia's love seems to have a hidden agenda for she is meetig her new lover Xie Ming (Yuanzheng Feng).
In addition to the main story above, there is a sub-plot. Lie Ye (`Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress') plays Situ, a young, ordinary Chinese man. He and Yiling (Bingbing Li) are innocent sweethearts, but when Situ is mistaken for someone else at the crowded station, a tragic thing happens.
[Noir in China] The fates of the characters are closely intertwined with the film's complicated plot. This film can be called a romance, but it would be more correct to call it a noir film. The images themselves are beautiful, and the production designs are realistic, but the murky photography and the shaky camera may not be your taste. Though there are shooting scenes, and you can see Zhang Ziyi shooting a gun - far cry from the image we associate with her (oh, and let's forget `Rush Hour 2,' shall we?) - the sequences are sometimes confusing, and probably that is one of the reasons for the general complaint about the film.
Whatever your reaction may be, the film proves that Zhang Ziyi is an immensely gifted actress, but I am not sure if her acting here is her best. But to me, though the time allotted to her character was not long enough, Bingbing Li as young telephone operator is more impressive. There is one brief but memorable scene, in which Bingbing Li quietly sits in a streetcar as if unaware of the riotous street outside. The contrast between the two worlds is represented in this short sequence, and in the middle of the battles and the deaths there is a woman who is clearly in love. Bingning Li literally becomes the image of love, which is too fragile in the time of war.
Writer/Director Lou Ye succeeds in creating such remarkable sequences resonant with the film's serious themes, but the jumbling of the time order and the confusing relations between the characters often do harm to them. `Purple Butterfly' is for the viewers who can be patient with the slow-moving and complicated story. It will be rewarding experience only after you put the pieces in the right places.