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With the market for Asian cinema at a crucial transition era, ambitious young mainland filmmakers are testing new audiences and film styles. Lou Ye’s Purple Butterfly represents an unfortunate artistic casualty of China’s changing censorship, marketing, and production conditions.
While the so-called “sixth generation” mainland Chinese films have been making the rounds at international film festivals since the mid '90s, it wasn’t until the release of Lou Ye’s Suzhou River in 2000 that the latest wave of mainland filmmakers became a talking point among American critics and art house audiences. Zhang Yimou’s vivacious color palettes and Chen Kaige’s operatic historical epics were suddenly replaced with low-key independent features highlighting overlooked sectors of China’s new urban generation.
Significantly, that same winter also saw the release of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which essentially meant that Asian film production -- at least at the level of fundraising, marketing, and distribution -- would never be the same again. So as quickly as the “sixth generation” belatedly arrived in the United States it would be rushed off-scene by a daunting new presence: the high-profile Asian co-production. In the states we’re oblivious to the new releases by doggedly independent filmmakers like Jia Zhang-ke and Zhu Wen (although the recent Blind Shaft was a fresh exception), favoring instead spectacle pictures whose trademark is the multi-cultural cast: He Ping’s Warriors of Heaven and Earth, Kim Sung-su’s Musa the Warrior, Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide, Wong Kar-wai’s 2046. Even sixth-generation pioneer Zhang Yuan’s latest, Green Tea, was a mainstream romantic comedy starring Vicki Zhao and Jiang Wen.
While independent filmmaking in China will never die, the sudden access to funding, especially for Asia’s great cinematic stylists like Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai, is surely enticing. Lou Ye is one such filmmaker. Lou’s Suzhou River was big on experimental cinematography and moody color tones, and as his latest film Purple Butterfly shows, he hasn’t wasted a dime of his French and Chinese producers, recreating '30s Shanghai in awesome detail. Yet it is exactly the impressive scope of the film that reveals Lou’s weaknesses as a director. In Suzhou River, character development and plot seemed hardly important since wallowing in the character’s cinematically warped existence was exciting enough; here, however, epic scales anticipate epic storytelling, and on that note, Lou fails hard.
Purple Butterfly begins in 1928 Manchuria and makes its way south to a bitter Shanghai three years later, where a violent anti-Japanese resistant group -- which includes a young comrade named Cynthia -- gathers to plan an assassination.
As Taiwanese maestro Hou Hsiao-hsien said in a recent speech, some directors are meant to make mainstream films and others art films: what we need is a film community that enables both types to make the films that best suit their talents. With the pressure on Asia to make big-budget action films, directors like Lou are forced to stray from their calling. There’s no denying that Purple Butterfly is stylistically rich -- embracing jump cuts, handheld cameras, and muddy color tones to impressive effect. Unfortunately Lou is unable to adapt these qualities of the intimate art film for the war picture. His style becomes -- above all -- distracting. There are too many hand-held long-takes that center closely on character faces, frustrating us because the moving camera makes it impossible for us to study their expressions, while the close-ups seem to waste the long-take by not allowing us to scan the scene. As a result, it’s hard to have strong feelings for any of the characters, so by the time Lou lays his anti-war spiel in the final two sequences (a curious flashback and a segment of WWII newsreel footage), his message is awkward and his pretension embarrassing.
The film’s best asset though is Zhang Ziyi, who plays Cynthia with such intensity that it’s amazing how quickly she sheds her superstar aura and embodies the freedom fighter in a variety of disguises. Zhang, of course, is the face of the new Asian co-production, having starred in Musa, 2046, Crouching Tiger, and Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers, so it’s no surprise that she feels so comfortable working between the conditions of a major production and the independent-thinking auteur. Despite the glamour of the set and costumes, this is hardly Zhang’s most elegant role, yet it is perhaps her best because of how she so naturally manages Lou’s often complex constuction. Under Zhang’s control, Cynthia is most impressive when silent, speaking through blank expressions and unmet glances.
It’s not surprising that '30s Shanghai has become the period of choice for some of Asia’s premier directors. The concerns of that era are remarkably resonant in contemporary China: high modernity in a seemingly, and perhaps dangerously, uncontrolled economic and cultural environment. The attractions for the filmmaker are obvious: the elegant qipao, the folk-noir lighting, the soundtrack of sing-song girl tunes such as those by the immortal Zhou Xuan. The question then is how filmmakers choose to use the era to address contemporary concerns. Zhang Yimou’s nostalgic vision in Shanghai Triad continued his fascination with narration, flashback, and everything Gong Li. Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage challenged notions of Chinese femininity as well as cinematic representation itself. With In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-wai channeled '30s Shanghai via '60s Hong Kong, presenting a fascinating temporal and spatial dislocation. Yet Lou Ye doesn’t seem to have a similar vision. Shanghai for him is just a beautiful historic arena to set another Hitchcock-inspired romance (Suzhou River was a neo-Vertigo while Purple Butterfly draws from the war-time intrigue of Notorious and the mistaken-identity narrative of North By Northwest and The Wrong Man).
Ideally, Lou will either gradually master the big-budget format or regain his footing as one of China’s more interesting stylists. The acting and artistic talent are clearly at his command; whether he will have the opportunity to undertake a project which exploits his talents, we’ll have to wait and see.
Date Posted: 2/3/2005