Dir: Lou Ye. China. 2003. 126mins

After the Cannes Competition screening of Purple Butterfly, the long-awaited third film from Chinese director Lou Ye, some of the best critical minds of our generation - plus the present reviewer - stood outside the Salle Bunuel, arguing about the plot. Everyone had a slightly different version of what actually happened in this historical romance, which is set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the 1930s. Lou Ye is no David Lynch, and the opaque storyline blunts one's appreciation of what is, in places, a good-looking piece of New Chinese cinema. This alone should set warning bells ringing against those who, sight unseen, have been hailing Purple Butterfly as a possible Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Atmospheric but often baffling, it may do better on DVD and video - if only because this will allow people to watch it over and over to work out exactly what is going on.

Lou Ye is one of the so-called 'Sixth Generation' of Chinese directors, alongside Zhang Yuan (Seventeen Years) and Wang Xiaoshuai, whose film Drifters screened in Un Certain Regard. Suzhou River, Lou Ye's last film, was banned for release at home because it was sent to the Tokyo Filmex Festival before its China Film Bureau certificate had come through. A similar fate is unlikely to befall Purple Butterfly, which arrived in Cannes with the necessary seal of approval. The presence of stars like Zhang Ziyi and Liu Ye, not to mention the film's stirringly nationalist reworking of a still controversial period in China's history, would suggest rosy local prospects.

In Manchuria in 1928, a young Chinese girl, Cynthia (Zhang) falls in love with a Japanese fellow student, Itami (Nakamura). Called back to Japan to do his military service, Itami abandons Cynthia, who returns home to see her brother murdered by a far-right Japanese extremist. The action then skips forward three years to Shanghai, which is now under Japanese occupation, and which simmers with anarchy and barely suppressed violence. Cynthia - who now goes under the name of Ding Hui - has joined an underground Chinese resistance group called Purple Butterfly. Itami, who has since become a Japanese secret agent, is posted to Shanghai to help unmask and eliminate the Butterflies; he reports directly to Yamamoto, head (we assume) of the local secret police - and therefore number one target for assassination by Ding Hui and her gang, which is led by flat-capped Xie Ming (Feng).

This is where things get really complicated. A prominent subplot featuring a romance between perky, bob-haired switchboard operator Yiling (Li) and young man Szeto (Liu) plays out without any initial explanation. It is only when Yiling goes to meet Szeto at the train station that the two plotlines intersect. The Butterflies are also there, apparently to meet a hit man that they have engaged to kill Yamamoto. But someone has snitched on them; a gun battle ensues, and Yiling is killed in the crossfire. An anguished Szeto is bundled into a car by the Butterflies - quite possibly because they believe him to be the hit man, though this was the point where the great critical minds mentioned earlier began to disagree.

Stylistically, Purple Butterfly is a curious halfway house. Mostly it fits into the sumptuous historical mould of Fifth Generation classics like Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad (which is set during the same tumultuous period). But there are also nods towards the European-influenced auteur approach of Hong Kong cinematic deity Wong Kar-wai - especially in the elliptical narrative structure, in the camera's long, silent lingering on faces and bodies, and in Zhang Ziyi's frequent costume changes.

Cinematographer Wang Yu uses lenses which such a shallow depth of field that faces sometimes blur out of focus; he also likes atmospheric, backlit tableaux that remind one of classic 1940s American film noir. Most of the film is shot in the pouring monsoon rain, and glistening streets and faces, damp fabric and downpours framed through windows of offices or trams set an atmosphere of brooding menace but also suppressed eroticism.

Held in throughout most of the film - partly, one assumes, because of the Chinese censors - this sensuality erupts right at the end in a steamy love scene between Ding Hui and her resistance fighter boss that is, at least initially, so unrelated to what has gone before that it seems like a reel has been swapped by the projectionist. The musical soundtrack conspires in the film's split identity, veering between composer Jorg Lemberg's sometimes corny orchestral chords and Chinese swing and jazz classics of the 1930s. These are occasionally used for ironic counterpoint - especially in a closing montage of period newsreel footage showing Japanese acts of violence and repression in Shanghai and Nangking.

Atmospheric but often baffling, Purple Butterfly may do better on DVD and video - if only because this will allow people to watch it over and over to work out exactly what is going on.

Prod cos: Shanghai Film Studio, Wild Bunch, Lou Ye
Dream Factory Production
Int'l sales:
Wild Bunch
Exec prods:
Jean Louis Piel, Vincent Maraval, Alain de la Mata
Zhu Yongde, Wang Wei
Lou Ye
Wang Yu
Prod des:
Liu Weixin
Chen Xiaohong, Lou Ye
Jorg Lemberg
Main cast:
Zhang Ziyi, Toru Nakamura, Liu Ye, Li Bingbing, Feng Yuangzheng