Lou Ye’s Purple Butterfly is dominated by faces. The camera favors them almost obsessively, as they appear bathed in blue hues and snatched from anonymity in public crowds. Bloodied, rain-soaked, and pastoral countenances tell the story of existential sacrifice in a pre-war scenario.
The first time we see Itami (Toru Nakamura) and Cynthia (Zhang Ziyi), they gaze into each others’ eyes, separated on opposite sides of the track by the rumble and flash of a passing train. Itami is Japanese and will soon be leaving Cynthia and her Manchurian home behind. It is 1928 and Japan’s aggression is escalating toward a volatile occupation. Itami’s own presence in Manchuria is never explained, and we later learn that he is returning home to serve his nation (at the time, Japan was beginning to set up puppet governments within China in order to expand its empirical holdings). From what little we see, Itami and Cynthia share a quiet, understated romance, nearly passionless in its subtlety.
The first time we see Cynthia’s face crack is when Itami boards the train and leaves town. The next time she shows upset is when her brother, a Chinese activist, is suddenly and brutally slaughtered by a Japanese extremist. Time seems to freeze in this moment: the smoke from the assailant’s bomb twists and dissipates around Cynthia’s face, which breaks through the blue haze, revealing in an instant her overwhelming sense of loss.
Purple Butterfly then jumps forward to 1931 Shanghai. Despite Japan’s recent invasion, Chinese lovers Szeto (Liu Ye) and Yiling (Li Bingbing) appear happy, attending the movies and dancing contentedly in their apartment to the rhythm of the rain. Their common, uncomplicated existence is dissolved when Szeto is mistaken for a member of a Chinese resistance group at a heavily populated train station. As Szeto is whisked away, Yiling is shot dead in the pandemonium of stampeding bodies. Her circumstantial assassin is Cynthia, now working as a member of the resistance group (most likely a role she accepted as vengeance for her brother’s murder).
The Japan-China conflict (technically, the beginnings of the second Sino-Japanese war) irrevocably, and operatically, alters the destinies of Cynthia, Itami, and Szeto. Itami becomes Cynthia’s political target because of his proximity to Yamamoto (Kin Ei), an important figure in the Japanese government; Cynthia, in turn, faces the imposed choice of fealty to her ex-lover or her country (or, to a larger extent, the honor of her brother’s memory). Ye’s film tracks the individual tragedies levied by the trickle-down effects of a larger conflict. Itami and Cynthia don’t so much as have a choice as they have expectations to meet and governments to support, romance be damned. Purple Butterfly implies that love is not so easily attainable or pragmatic when one is faced with accepting a role in obedience either to the status quo or to revolution.
The film’s plot can be frustratingly fuzzy; its complex double-crossings and unexplained character motivations often force us to feebly tie its loose ends together. For a film so reliant on plot points, it seems odd that Ye could care less about fully illustrating them. Though its most obvious inspiration for these complications and morally obscured characters is hard-boiled film noir, Purple Butterfly occasionally echoes the softer version of Casablanca, another film whose fatalistic interpretation of love is set among war-torn circumstances (and is also emotionally invested in faces and glances).
As the film builds to its bloody climax of multiple revenges, Cynthia and Itami’s romance devolving into memory instead of reality, Itami delivers a reimagined Bogart line: “I want you to know, whatever happens, I will never forget our time in Manchuria.” Itami may look back fondly on the relationship, but it ultimately has no place in his newly renovated existence; he now answers only to the covert arm of the Japanese government for which he works. Cynthia’s expressive face (molded in both cold resolve and timid vulnerability by Ziyi) begrudgingly accepts this in silence. In one of the film’s deathly patient poetic stretches (Ye’s technique to prelude an abrupt explosion of violence), she buries her faces in Itami’s shoulder, concealing her confusion and attempting to obscure the inevitable.
Although the duo’s romance descends into near-Shakespearian despair, it is Szeto who becomes Purple Butterfly‘s true tragedy. His case of mistaken identity claims not only his lover, but his dignity and sanity. Tortured by the Japanese and used as a political pawn, Szeto is pushed so close to the brink of madness that he uncharacteristically responds with a killing spree. In a key scene, Szeto sits emotionless in his apartment, sharply dressed, holding a gun to his chest. While trying to summon the courage to take his own life, he hears the music that reminds him of those moments dancing with Yiling; pausing, he closes his eyes and gets lost in the reflection.
Ye’s camera slowly swallows Szeto’s face, calm and contemplative, balancing the outcomes of two separate fates. When his eyes open and a tear escapes, it’s as if he’s cleared his mind of all feeling, signaling a turning point that directs his destiny to the worst. He, too, will discard his past romance in order to follow the path inflicted upon him by circumstance and conflict. Slowly, silently, his face reveals the concession — shutting down emotionally to fully embrace the role of assassin — that will prove his undoing.
Purple Butterfly, now out on a feature-less DVD barely three months after its U.S. theatrical release, concludes with a brief coda of tacked-on stock footage depicting the Shanghai bombings in 1937. It puts the film in a historical context (to further educate an arguably ignorant Western world), and unnecessarily suggests that Purple Butterfly is a story of big-picture historical importance rather than smaller personal crises. The film Ye has made argues otherwise; its meditative rhythm carries cadences of individuals in mid-crisis, the undercurrent theme of nationalism notwithstanding. History and politics are a force in the trajectories of Cynthia, Itami, and Szeto, but the emphasis on character prevents the film from being fully or merely a message picture. Purple Butterfly is, after all, dominated by faces and fates could exist anywhere, anytime.