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A Hundred Years of Japanese Film
by Donald Richie & Paul Schrader

. "Purple Butterfly"

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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Toru Nakamura and Zhang Ziyi
Lovers with deadly destinies


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