Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Lou Ye, 2003)

Purple Butterfly posterChinese films about the resistance movement towards the Japanese occupation tend to veer towards the hagiographic. The business of resistance may be complex, may require unfortunate moral compromises, and may in fact prove ruinous but it is always righteous. Lou Ye’s Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Zǐ Húdié) wants to tell a different, sadder story. Set between 1928 and 1937, Purple Butterfly pits love and oppression against each other and asks whether feeling is a worthy causality of war or if compassion is merely a weakness which must be eradicated in the quest for political freedom.

In Manchuria in 1928, Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi) is having an affair with a Japanese man raised in China who is also a childhood friend. Itami (Toru Nakamura) is being called back to Japan and has asked Ding Hui to go with him. As if trapped within a melancholy film noir, she goes to the station but does not board the train. When she comes home, she witnesses her brother, the editor of an underground resistance newspaper, being assassinated by a Japanese nationalist. Ding Hui joins the cause.

Flashforward to 1931 and Ding Hui makes her second trip to the station as part of an operation to pass important papers to an operative. However, the operation goes as wrong as it could possibly go. Szeto (Liu Ye) – an ordinary passenger, picks up the assassin’s jacket by mistake and is passed the briefcase. When he tries to give it back, the operative panics and starts shooting, assuming they have been betrayed. Many innocent people are killed, including Szeto’s fiancée Yiling (Li Bingbing) who had made the perilous journey to the station to meet him despite the ongoing unrest gripping the city.

Train stations become a point of transition, of loss and compromise in more ways than one and especially for Ding Hui who feels herself fracturing, anxious to the point of breakdown and wondering what exactly it is they’re fighting for. As coincidence would have it, also on the train is Itami – returned from Japan and now an intelligence officer tasked with rooting out the “Purple Butterfly” resistance cell of which Ding Hui is a prominent member. It is decided that Ding Hui must rekindle her romance with Itami in order to have an eye in the intelligence department and engineer access to assassinating the top officer, Yamamoto (Kin Ei).

Lou deliberately fragments his narrative, allowing the shockwaves from the central train station sequence to radiate outward as the three protagonists dance around each other willingly or otherwise. Dance is, indeed, the primary metaphor as he digresses from the central narrative to give us Szeto’s backstory in his dreamy, innocent romance with Yiling which is destined to end in tragedy. The pair dance to Shanghai jazz, giddy, as if the world itself has receded from them and they exist only within this present and this space. Later Szeto puts the same record on again as he contemplates suicide, longing to be back inside that moment. As we had two train stations we also have two dances but our second is danced to a Japanese tune as Ding Hui and Itami attend a party, each sorrowful, each dreading what must come next but also perhaps mildly hopeful that it will finally be over and perhaps they can both catch that train out of Shanghai after all.

War defeats them all. Szeto’s life is ruined, as are the lives of many, by resistance panic at a busy train station. His pain and his rage and the impotence of his times threaten to push him over the edge, consumed by hatred for both sides who have each taken from him the only things which ever mattered. Ding Hui sacrificed her love for patriotism, Itami sacrificed patriotism for love, they win and lose in equal measure cementing only the inevitable sense of impossibility which continues to define Shanghai in the 1930s. Lou paints their destinies like film noir, fatalistic and romantic yet human and painful. Feeling is powerless in the face of historical circumstance, or so Lou seems to say as he closes out with a selection of stock footage depicting the fall of Shanghai and the Nanjing Massacre. What are we fighting for? Ding Hui asks, but it’s a question with no answer when all around is chaos.


Purple Butterfly is available to stream on Mubi UK until 3rd September 2018.

 Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Memoirs of a Murderer (22年目の告白―私が殺人犯です―, Yu Irie, 2017)

Memoirs of a MurdererJung Byung-gil’s Confession of Murder may have been a slightly ridiculous revenge drama, but it had at its heart the necessity of dealing with the traumatic past head on in order to bring an end to a cycle of pain and destruction. Yu Irie retools Jung’s tale of a haunted policeman for a wider examination of the legacy of internalised impotence in the face of unavoidable mass violence – in this case the traumatic year of 1995 marked not only by the devastating Kobe earthquake but also by Japan’s only exposure to an act of large scale terrorism. Persistent feelings of powerlessness and nihilistic despair conspire to push fragile minds towards violence as a misguided kind of revenge against their own sense of insignificance but when a killer, safe in the knowledge that they are immune from prosecution after surviving the statute of limitations for their crimes, attempts to profit from their unusual status, what should a society do?

22 years ago, in early 1995, a spate of mysterious stranglings rocked an already anxious Tokyo. In 2010, Japan removed the statute of limitations on capital crimes such as serial killings, mass killings, child killings, and acts of terror, which had previously stood at 15 years, leaving the perpetrator free of the threat of prosecution by only a matter of seconds. Then, all of a sudden, a book is published claiming to be written by the murderer himself as piece of confessional literature. Sonezaki (Tatsuya Fujiwara), revealing himself as the book’s author at a high profile media event, becomes a pop-culture phenomenon while the victims’ surviving families, and the detective who was in charge of the original case, Makimura (Hideaki Ito), incur only more suffering.

Unlike Jung’s version, Irie avoids action for tense cerebral drama though he maintains the outrageous nature of the original and even adds an additional layer of intrigue to the already loaded narrative. Whereas police in Korean films are universally corrupt, violent, or bumbling, Japanese cops are usually heroes even if occasionally frustrated by the bureaucracy of their organisation or by prevalent social taboos. Makimura falls into hero cop territory as he becomes a defender of the wronged whilst sticking steadfastly to the letter of the law in insisting that the killer be caught and brought to justice by the proper means rather than sinking to his level with a dose of mob justice.

Justice is, however, hard to come by now that, legally speaking, the killer’s crimes are an irrelevance. Sonezaki can literally go on TV and confess and nothing can be done. The media, however, have other ideas. The Japanese press has often been criticised for its toothlessness and tendency towards self-censorship, but maverick newscaster and former war correspondent Sendo (Toru Nakamura) is determined to make trial by media a more positive move than it sounds. He invites Sonezaki on live TV to discuss his book, claiming that it’s the opportunity to get to the truth rather than the viewing figures which has spurred his decision, but many of his colleagues remain skeptical of allowing a self-confessed murderer to peddle his macabre memoirs on what they would like to believe is a respectable news outlet.

The killer forces the loved ones of his victims to watch while he goes about his bloody business, making them feel as powerless as he once did while he remains ascendent and all powerful. It is these feelings of powerlessness and ever present unseen threats born of extensive personal or national traumas which are responsible for producing such heinous crimes and by turns leave behind them only more dark and destructive emotions in the desire for violence returned as revenge. Focussing in more tightly on the despair and survivors guilt which plagues those left behind, Irie opts for a different kind of darkness to his Korean counterpart but refuses to venture so far into it, avowing that the law deserves respect and will ultimately serve the justice all so desperately need. Irie’s artier approach, shifting to grainier 16:9 for the ‘90s sequences, mixing in soundscapes of confusing distortion and TV news stock footage, often works against the outrageous quality of the convoluted narrative and its increasingly over the top revelations, but nevertheless he manages to add something to the Korean original in his instance on violence as sickness spread by fear which can only be cured through the calm and dispassionate application of the law.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Showroom Cinema – 22 March 2018
  • Broadway – 23 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 24 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 24 March 2018
  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 25 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Memories of You (ラブ・ストーリーを君に, Shinichiro Sawai, 1988)

Memories of youIf you thought idol movies were all cute and quirky stories of eccentric high school girls with pretty, poppy voices then think again because Memories of You is coming for you and your faith in idols to make everything better. Directed by W’s Tragedy‘s Shinichiro Sawai, Memories of You (ラブ・ストーリーを君に, Love Story wo Kimi Ni) stars one of the biggest idols of them all – Kumiko Goto, only 14 years old at the time of filming. Seemingly inspired by classic Hollywood melodramas of the ‘50s, Sawai’s film finds its innocent protagonist attempting to live an entire lifetime in only six months as she succumbs to a cruel and relentless disease.

Giving no clue as to its eventual destination, Memories of You begins with two young men returning from a hiking trip. You can tell the pair are committed alpinists because of their distinctly alpine attire and by the way they look at a glockenspiel. In this early comic scene, Araki (Shingo Yanagisawa) is heading straight to an important job interview that he hopes will help him get his girl back if he’s hired so he’s talking a mile a minute whilst awkwardly changing into a business suit inside a photo booth.

The other young man, Akira (Toru Nakamura), runs into the star of film, Yumi (Kumiko Goto), on her way back from the hospital. Akira used to be Yumi’s tutor and it’s obvious she has kind of a crush on him. Unbeknownst to Yumi, the results of her tests are much more serious than might be assumed from her cheerful persona. Yumi has leukaemia and the doctors do not expect her to survive for more than six months at most.

Yumi’s devasted mother shifts her grief away from the pain of losing her only child, to that of her stolen future – no high school, no romance, no love, marriage, or children. Accordingly she asks teacher in training Akira for a considerable sacrifice – essentially, pretend to date Yumi and give her the kind of love story that she will never now be able to experience.

Needless to say, this is a little creepy given that Akira is in in his mid-twenties and Yumi is only fourteen. Of course, it’s all very chaste and innocent like something out of a shoujo manga but still even in 1988 the scenario rings alarm bells. Akira is conflicted about his new role as a fake boyfriend for a dying teenager but it would be heartless to refuse, though one may wonder about what effect all of this may have on his future chosen career.

The world of 1988 is noticeably sexist in that Yumi’s mother works as a cookery teacher, reminding her pupil’s that this is the most important course because they’ll all be competing with their future mother-in-laws in the great culinary battle to win their husband’s hearts. These girls are raised to be housewives and nothing more, although, Yumi’s mother is divorced and now has a career, is taking care of Yumi alone and is not particularly looking to remarry. So, swings and roundabouts in terms of social progress.

The film flits between the viewpoints of Yumi and Akira as they both try to adapt to this unusual situation. As is common in these kinds of films, Yumi is not quite as in the dark as everyone had assumed and is readying herself to say her final goodbyes. This also brings about a reunion with her long absent father who has emigrated to Canada where he has a new wife and younger daughter. Yumi’s family status is an uncommon one for 1988, yet there is relatively little stigma surrounding it. Perhaps her father’s return after three years is one factor in Yumi’s realisation of the seriousness of her condition (as her mother feared it might be) but the final reconciliation does at least bring her a little more calmness and stability.

Yumi’s illness is a mountain which cannot be conquered. The beauty of the natural world and the desire to overcome it, in a sense, through physical exertion are the chief motifs of the film as Yumi dreams of travelling to Switzerland – the spiritual home of alpinism (it would seem). The loving looks at the glockenspiel in the opening scenes develop into an underlying musical theme as they also recur during the lengthy cabaret sequence close to the film’s climax. Of course, Yumi finally attempts to climb her mountain with Akira as her guide but there is only so far she can proceed.

Despite its melodramatic touches and desire to be a grand tearjerker, Memories of You is too restrained to make the full force of its tragedy achieve the kind of emotional effect that it aims for. Filled with syrupy, orchestral music very much like that employed by classic Hollywood examples of the genre, Memories of You really wants the viewer to experience the intense sadness of such a young life taken by a cruel and indiscriminating disease but often overplays its hand. This isn’t helped by the unsettling nature of the “romance” between Akira and Yumi or the (entirely understandable) lack of chemistry between the leads who each give independently high quality performances. An interesting example of an “idol movie” which steps outside the genre norms, Memories of You doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions but is another nicely photographed effort from Sawai.


End credits and title song (not sung by Kumiko Goto)

A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Junji Sakamoto, 2012)

chorus of angelsAs you read the words “adapted from the novel by Kanae Minato” you know that however cute and cuddly the blurb on the back may make it sound, there will be pain and suffering at its foundation. So it is with A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Kita no Kanariatachi) which sells itself as a kind of mini-take on Twenty-Four Eyes (“Twelve Eyes” – if you will) as a middle aged former school mistress meets up with her six former charges only to discover that her own actions have cast an irrevocable shadow over the very sunlight she was determined to shine on their otherwise troubled young lives.

Haru has been working as a librarian in the city for the last twenty years and has finally reached retirement age but before that she was a school teacher in Japan’s frozen north. Before she can even think about enjoying her new found freedom, a pair of policeman turn up at her door to ask her a few questions about one of her former pupils, Nobuto, who is a suspect in a murder case. It seems that they found Haru’s address amongst Nobuto’s possessions and are keen to find out what kind of relationship she had with him and anything she might know about his current whereabouts. Haru is shocked to the core but remembers that she always gets a New Year card from one of Nobuto’s classmates, Manami, and decides to return home at long last to try and put to rest some wandering ghosts.

Like much of Kanae Minato’s work, A Chorus of Angels is a perfectly constructed mystery only this time much more of the heart than of the head. Consequently, it would be wrong to reveal too much of the plot but suffice to say that a traumatic incident twenty years ago left a profound effect not only on each of the children but also on their teacher and others in the surrounding area. Re-encountering each of her six pupils again, Haru discovers that each of them has been harbouring a deeply buried sense of guilt and shame, believing themselves to have been responsible for what happened that day. That sense of unresolved trauma has prevented each of them from fully getting on with their lives, as if some part of each of them was frozen in time when they were just primary school children singing in a choir and feeling proud of themselves for the first time in their lives.

Their teacher, Haru, also left a part of herself behind in that snowy northern landscape. Having committed something which some would regard as a sin, she’s hounded off the island – or perhaps allows herself to be, giving in to a punishment that she sees as befitting her own sense of guilt. However, as is customary for Minato, Haru’s “crime” is not such a black and white affair. If she betrayed someone, that person understood and, ultimately, only wanted the best for her. That she sacrificed the things that might have allowed her to go on living a happy life is the kind of tragic irony Minato is known for and the lonely, cold and shut off appearance of Haru’s twenty years of librarianing exile is another perfect example. She didn’t really do anything wrong except for try to live, and yet she’s paid for that with the next twenty years of her life and not only that, in robbing the young children who’d come to see her as something of a guardian angel of her very presence, she’s left them to pay too. Guilt grows like a mountain until it eclipses even the brightest of suns.

Despite its unfeasibly starry cast which radiates around veteran actress Sayuri Yoshinga and includes such young talents as Hikari Mitsushima, Mirai Moriyama, Ryuhei Matsuda, Ryo Katsuji, Aoi Miyazaki and Eiko Koike, A Chorus of Angles is actually fairly ordinary in terms of its directorial style and though it manages to stay on the right side of saccharine, never quite manages to make its tear-jerking set-up quite as moving as it seems to want to be. That said, it does boast some extraordinarily beautiful scenes of the Hokkaido snowscape which is a perfect setting for this chilling, frozen ghost story in which no actual ghosts appear. The children’s childhoods are all blissful blue skies and sunny summer days but in the future there’s only snow and cold winter sunshine. Just stay alive, it would be enough – to live is to suffer, but you have to go on. The important thing to learn is that it’s one thing to forgive everyone else, but there comes a time when you have to forgive yourself, too.


The Hong Kong release of A Chorus of Angels includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: