(aka "Zi Hudie" )

 

directed by Lou Ye
China 2003

 

Most non-Chinese people know Zhang Ziyi from her appearances in the martial-arts movies “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”, and “House of Flying Daggers”. However, Zhang Ziyi is not just an action star. In fact, she doesn’t know any martial arts; she relies on her training as a ballet dancer in order to perform martial-arts choreography. Zhang Ziyi has also appeared in serious dramatic pieces such as “The Road Home” and “Purple Butterfly”. Although she appeared in “Rush Hour 2”, Zhang’s first lead role in an English-language production was in “Memoirs of a Geisha”.

Director Lou Ye received widespread praise for “Suzhou River”, so “Purple Butterfly” was accepted as a Cannes entry. However, “Purple Butterfly” was widely despised, so its chances of getting a decent theatrical release in the U.S. were slim. In fact, even though I wanted to see it, I wasn’t even aware that the DVD had been released until I saw it on a shelf at my local Blockbuster video store. (“Purple Butterfly” is a direct translation of the movie’s Chinese title, “Zi Hudie”.)

Yes, I admit that I wanted to see “Purple Butterfly” because of Zhang Ziyi and not because of the director or what I knew of the story. However, Zhang doesn’t look like she does in her martial-arts efforts. Since martial-arts movies are fantasies, heroines always look very pretty, even after they’ve been in fights. In “Purple Butterfly”, Zhang doesn’t seem to wear any make-up, and her completely de-glamorized appearance will be a shock to viewers expecting another camera-in-love-with-the-actress’s-face fest.

The movie begins in Manchuria during the 1920s. The Chinese Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi) dates the Japanese Itami (Toru Nakamura). During this period, the Japanese occupied much of northern China. Ding Hui’s brother doesn’t really object to her dating a Japanese man, but after a Japanese fanatic kills her brother, Ding Hui heads to Shanghai to join an anti-Japanese faction. The title refers to a purple butterfly pin on a suit jacket. A lot of reviewers call Ding Hui’s anti-Japanese group as the Purple Butterfly faction, though I don’t recall the anti-Japanese activists referring to themselves with that term.

Ding Hui and Itami run into each other in Shanghai after he is dispatched there as a spy. They use each other to achieve their objectives, though Itami hopes that Ding Hui will go to Japan with him. However, Ding Hui no longer loves Itami. The movie ends with a montage of newsreel footage that shows what the Japanese did in Shanghai and in Nanjing during World War II.

The script introduces secondary characters that are affected by Ding Hui and Itami’s activities. Szeto (Liu Ye) and his girlfriend (Li Bingbing), a telephone switchboard operator, happen to be at a train station when anti-Japanese and Japanese operatives engage in a gunfight. Szeto’s girlfriend is killed in the crossfire, which causes Szeto much emotional anguish. Since the Japanese think that Szeto is an anti-Japanese activist, he gets tortured for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, too. The movie’s focus on Szeto and his girlfriend echoes Krzysztof Kieslowski’s obsession with coincidence in “The Double Life of Veronique” and the “Three Colors” trilogy. By the movie’s climax, however, Szeto decides to take matters into his own hands rather than letting others victimize him over and over again.

In post-production, the director crafted a movie that doubles back upon itself a few times. However, despite the non-linearity of some sequences, you actually know what happens to each character. What could confuse a viewer is trying to figure out the character’s motivations. A lot of people think that Ding Hui still loves Itami when they’re in Shanghai. I, on the other hand, think that Ding Hui hates Itami after her brother’s murder. In the geopolitical scheme of things, this is really the only acceptable conclusion.

On a technical level, the movie is assembled with much care and artistry. You’ll need to adjust to the jittery camerawork and rapid editing, though the visual style is a big part of what makes the movie so satisfying to watch. In fact, the cinematography is first-rate; the image compositions and generally moody atmosphere reminded most viewers of Wong Kar-wai. Since it’s fashionable to praise Wong Kar-wai, comparisons between “Purple Butterfly” and “In the Mood for Love” tend to paint Lou Ye’s movie as inferior. Really, though, “Purple Butterfly” is as good as most of Wong’s movies.

The use of slow-motion cinematography coupled with mournful music has become a standard fixture in contemporary Chinese-language cinema. (See Tony Leung at the end of “Infernal Affairs”.) “Purple Butterfly” has these moments, too. This sort of moviemaking is undeniably affecting, but one has to wonder if directors should be encouraged in this direction. After all, do we really want slo-mo death accompanied by mellifluous melodies to inspire creativity?

Purple Butterfly” is not at all the confusing mess that so many reviewers have said it is. In fact, it has a rather simple story. That being said, the storytelling methods are fanciful and atmospheric. Oddly, the movie has a Romantic (as in the art movement and not love) view of the world even though the director ultimately wants to condemn Japan’s imperialist past. This makes the movie feel elegiac for two reasons, one of them unnecessary. The first--the necessary--reason is feeling sad about characters caught in the middle of others’ violence. The second--the unnecessary--reason is feeling sad that two people can’t love each other because they’re from opposite sides in a war. Still, Zhang Ziyi’s character got it right when she realized that fighting the Japanese was more important than her personal happiness.

Note: A love scene that runs about two minutes was cut from the movie before its general release around the world. Chinese censors did not want audiences to see a Chinese woman and a Japanese man together in an intimate scene.

Yunda Eddie Feng

Posters

Theatrical Release: 22 May 2003 (Cannes Film Festival)

Reviews    More Reviews  DVD Reviews

DVD Comparison:

Palm Pictures - Region 1 - NTSC vs. Zoke Culture - Region 0 - PAL

Big thanks to Yunda Eddie Feng for all the Screen Caps!

(Palm Pictures - Region 1 - NTSC - LEFT vs. Zoke Culture - Region 0 - PAL - RIGHT)

DVD Box Covers

 

Distribution

Palm Pictures

Region 1 - NTSC

Zoke Culture
Region 0 - PAL
Runtime 127 min 122 min (4% PAL speedup)
Video

1.85:1 Original Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
Average Bitrate: 6.78 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

1.66:1 Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 3.82 mb/s
PAL 720x576 25.00 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate:

 

Palm Pictures

 

Bitrate:

 

Zoke Culture

 

Audio Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo Mandarin Chinese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin Chinese

Dolby Digital 2.0 surround Mandarin Chinese

Subtitles Optional English Burned-in Simplified Chinese
Features Release Information:
Studio: Palm Pictures

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 1.85:1

Edition Details:
• Trailer
• Trailers for other Palm releases
• Director's Statement (text printed on inside cover art)

DVD Release Date: 15 Feb 2005
transparent keepcase

Chapters 18

Release Information:
Studio: Zoke Culture

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen letterboxed - 1.66:1

Edition Details:
• Trailers and Promo Clips

 

DVD Release Date: 28 Jul 2003
keepcase

Chapters 6

 

 

Comments Video:
R1 Palm
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is pretty lousy. It is mis-framed, as can be seen with captions and subtitles at the bottom of the screen being partially cut off. The contrast is all wrong, and since the print was brightened in the wrong manner, there are hardly any true blacks. Moreover, improper brightening leads to excessive grain. You can see print damage (such as vertical scratches created by cameras, film processors, and projectors). There are “cigarette burns” in the upper right-hand corner (used to indicate reel changes in theatres), which means that the print used for the DVD was a dupe of a dupe that was sent to theatres instead of a print taken directly from the master negative. Only a few clean, clear shots give you a glimpse of how this well-shot movie should look on DVD. This transfer was probably taken from an interlaced source, as evidenced by the “venetian blinds”.

R0 Zoke
The 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen image is awful. In most places, it looks like a pirated recording made with a videocamera in a movie theatre. The picture is very dark, though fleshtones seem to be more natural than with the R1 Palm DVD. This transfer has more vertical footage than the R1 disc, though it has been cropped on the sides. It looks like the R0 PAL video was taken from a progressive source, but blocking and other video artifacts abound.

Note: I’ve used the full 4x3 image of the R0 Zoke transfer to show you the weird masking that was used. The black bars are uneven lines, suggesting that “home-made” mattes were used to approximate letterboxing during shooting.

Audio:
R1 Palm
I read other DVD reviews of “Purple Butterfly” before writing mine, and everyone praised the audio for being above-average. Those reviewers were basically lying. I watched my disc as well as three other copies of the R1 Palm DVD, and they all had the same problem. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin Chinese track is atrocious. Sometimes, the right front channel didn’t have anything, and sometimes, the left front channel didn’t have anything. The rears are weak or non-existent. Bass output is muted and inconsistent, and music reproduction is tepid. The dialogue was muffled. The 5.1 track was so aggravating that I switched to the DD 2.0 stereo Mandarin Chinese track, which was nicely-balanced, with robust bass and audible music coupled with credible rain effects (also weak in the 5.1 track) and comprehensible dialogue. Where was Quality Control???

R0 Zoke
The DD 2.0 surround Mandarin Chinese track is similar to the DD 2.0 stereo track on the R1 DVD, though there is so much hiss and other ambient noises that it sounds like a recording taken inside an empty movie theatre.

Extras:
R1 Palm
The DVD offers only a couple of previews, including one for “Purple Butterfly”, in terms of bonus features. The trailer for “Purple Butterfly” is also marred by technical problems, including a complete audio drop-out towards its end. In fact, the audio sounds wobbly for most of the trailer’s running time, leading me to believe that the trailer on the DVD was mastered from a print that made a few too many rounds in theatres before arriving in the DVD producer’s hands. There’s also a “Director’s Statement” printed on the reverse side of the keepcase cover art.

R0 Zoke
The DVD has about 18-minutes’ worth of trailers and promotional clips. This sampling of footage is of terrible quality, so the R0 Zoke wins this category through quantity rather than via quality.

Summary:
To be frank, both DVD versions of “Purple Butterfly” are terrible, but the movie is a richly rewarding experience. The R1 Palm disc is at least watchable, though be sure to pick the DD 2.0 stereo track instead of the badly-authored DD 5.1 track.

 - Yunda Eddie Feng

 

 






DVD Menus

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Palm Pictures - Region 1 - NTSC - LEFT vs. Zoke Culture - Region 0 - PAL - RIGHT)


 

 

 

 


 

Screen Captures

(Palm Pictures - Region 1 - NTSC - TOP vs. Zoke Culture - Region 0 - PAL - BOTTOM)

 

 


(Palm Pictures - Region 1 - NTSC - TOP vs. Zoke Culture - Region 0 - PAL - BOTTOM)

 

 


(Palm Pictures - Region 1 - NTSC - TOP vs. Zoke Culture - Region 0 - PAL - BOTTOM)

 

 


(Palm Pictures - Region 1 - NTSC - TOP vs. Zoke Culture - Region 0 - PAL - BOTTOM)

 

 


(Palm Pictures - Region 1 - NTSC - TOP vs. Zoke Culture - Region 0 - PAL - BOTTOM)

 

 


(Palm Pictures - Region 1 - NTSC - TOP vs. Zoke Culture - Region 0 - PAL - BOTTOM)

 

 


(Palm Pictures - Region 1 - NTSC - TOP vs. Zoke Culture - Region 0 - PAL - BOTTOM)

 

DVD Box Covers

 

Distribution

Palm Pictures

Region 1 - NTSC

Zoke Culture
Region 0 - PAL

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Report Card:

 

Image:

R1 Palm

Sound:

R1 Palm

Extras: R0 Zoke
Menu: R1 Palm

 




 

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