The director of this period film, Lou Ye, must have been paid by how many
frames of the movie had no dialogue, for there are so many of them. I'm all
for the mood that silences can convey, and as a sense of reality in which
people aren't talking all the time for the sake of a narrative, but I draw
the line when the absence of dialogue all but destroys comprehension. The
style may fill a festival audience's heart with a glow of artistry but it
leaves me unilluminated.
The only thing I can find in its favor (and I'm stretching here) is that
paucity of verbal expression focuses your attention all the more on the
people, the events and the nuanced, low key cinematography. And, when one of
the people onscreen is the lustrous Zhang Ziyi, fast becoming regarded as the
most beautiful Asian actress in film today, it scores some points. One must
grant that Ye and his producers know how to exploit the compelling
expressiveness that Ziyi affords their picture. At the same time, there's a
bit too much of a good thing here.
I used to think (after "Hero" and "The House of Flying Daggers") that I could watch Ziyi for
hours. As a result of this film and its laborious length, arbitrary editing
and other questionable techniques, I'm having second thoughts. A dramatic
context for any actor is necessary, and understanding of the actions on
screen, essential--even when Ziyi is involved.
There's no doubt that there is a story being told here, and as it winds on,
we pick up a sense of it here, a hint of it there. Reading a synopsis
before watching the movie is enormously helpful--which is my
piece of advice before you go see it. It turns out (somewhat to my amazement
in cases) that Cynthia (sorry, but Ziyi doesn't look like a "Cynthia") is in
love with Itami (Toru Nakamora), a handsome lad with some mysteries of his
own -- like why he would suddenly take off and leave this beauty alone.
It turns out he's been sent home for military service in anticipation of
brewing hostilities. Destroyed by the departure of her lover, Cynthia moves
back to Shanghai and visits her brother at his printing shop just as he's
putting out a pamphlet against the Japanese aggressions and calling for a
boycott of all their goods. As he's loading pamphlets into a delivery car,
he's suddenly attacked by a Japanese terrorist, viciously stabbed and killed.
This lady isn't having such a good time.
She proceeds to change her name to Ding Hui (ah, that's better!) and, war
with Japan imminent (the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, circa 1930), joins a secret resistance
group called Purple Butterfly whose purpose is to assassinate the head of the
Japanese secret service). This is portrayed so silently and inscrutably, it
escaped my awareness, but that is what's going on. Years later, Itami turns
up as a key Japanese secret agent and Hui is forced to decide whether she'll
be part of a plot to assassinate her ex-lover. "Caught between love and
duty...!!" in the words of the PR hype.
If this sounds like the stuff of a Harlequin romance novel, it is. Such
concentration on the agonies of the female central figure brings to mind the
Julia Roberts flop, "Mary Reilly." The art of it is entirely in the
atmospherics; the rest is melodrama. Its 127 minute exercise in puzzle
solving is draining.
Ziyi does seem to have inherited the crown of stunning good looks, and the
major attention it draws, from illustrious Gong Li, who last delivered "Zhou Yu's Train." But this is
a win-win situation for deep admirers of exquisite faces with enough talent
to make them matter. This evaluation applies equally to both ladies, and
producers everywhere are well advised to tap into the appeal that both
inevitably invest a film with -- even one as silent and extended as this.
~~ Jules Brenner