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)

The Road Home (我的父亲母亲, Zhang Yimou, 1999)

The Road Home PosterChinese cinema, it could be said, has been looking for the road home for quite some time. Not only is the past a relatively safe arena for present allegory, but even among the previously hard edged fifth generation directors, there’s long been a tendency to wonder if things weren’t better long ago in the village. Zhang Yimou certainly seems to think they might have been, at least in the beautifully melancholic The Road Home (我的父亲母亲, Wǒde Fùqin Mǔqin) in which a son returns home after many years away and reflects on the deeply felt and quietly passionate love story that defined the life of his parents.

In the late ‘90s, a successful businessman, Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), drives back to his rural mountain village on hearing of the sudden death of his father, Changyu (Zheng Hao ) – a school teacher. The village’s mayor explains to him that for some years his father had been desperate to improve the local school and, despite his advanced age, had been travelling village to village raising money until he was caught in a snow storm and taken to hospital where they discovered he had heart trouble. The mayor wanted to pay for a car to fetch Changyu, but Yusheng’s mother Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi) wants him to be carried back along the road to the village in keeping with the ancient tradition so he won’t forget his way home.

The problem, as the mayor points out, is that like Yusheng, most of the other youngsters have left the village and there just aren’t enough able-bodied people available to make Zhao Di’s request a realistic prospect. Zhang’s film is not just a warm hearted love story, but a lament for a lost way of life and a part of China which is rapidly disappearing.

This fact is poignantly brought home by Yusheng’s realisation that his parents’ love, set against one kind of political turbulence, was a kind of revolution in itself. In the Chinese countryside of the 1950s, marriages happened through arrangements made by (generally male) family members, no-one fell in love and then decided to spend their lives together. Yet Zhao Di, a dreamy village girl whose own mother was so heartbroken by the death of her husband that she was blinded by the strength of her tears, dared to believe a in romantic destiny and then refused to accept that it could not be.

Zhang begins the tale in a washed out black and white narrated by the melancholy voice over of the bereaved Yusheng whose first visit home in what seems likes years is tinged with guilt and regret. His father wanted him to be a teacher in a village school, but Yusheng left the village and like most of his generation took advantage of changing times to embark on a life of wealth and status in the city. As remembered by their son, the love story of Zhang Di and Luo Changyu is one of vivid colour from the freshness of the early spring to the icy snows of winter.

An innocent love, the courtship is one of sweet looks and snatched conversations. Zhao Di, captivated by the new arrival, listens secretly outside the school and waits for Changyu on the “road home” as he escorts the children back to the village. Yet these are turbulent times and even such idyllic villages as this are not safe from political strife. The burgeoning romance between a lonely village girl and earnest young boy from the city is almost destroyed when he is ordered back “to answer some questions” for reasons which are never explained but perhaps not hard to guess. Zhao Di chases him, the totality of her defeat crushing in its sense of finality but again she refuses to give up and remains steadfast, waiting for her love to reappear along the road home.

Though “the road home” carries its own sense of poignancy, the Chinese title which means something as ordinary as “my mother and father” emphasises the universality of Yusheng’s tale. This is the story of his parents, a story of true and enduring love, but it could be the story of anybody’s parents in a small rural village in difficult 1950s China. The world, Zhang seems to say, has moved on and consigned true love to an age of myth and legend while the young, like Yusheng, waste their lives in misery in the economic powerhouses of the city never knowing such poetical purity. China has been away too long and lost its way, but there will always be a road home for those with a mind to find it.


International trailer (English voiceover)

The Grandmaster (UK Release) (UK Anime Network Review)

background_46481“Once upon a time in Kung Fu”? Really? “Inspired by the True Story of Bruce Lee’s Master”? Yeah, this poster tells you everything you need to know. 1000+ word rant Review of the Weinstein cut of Wong Kar Wai’s latest up at UK Anime Network.


You’d be hard pressed to find a more internationally well loved Chinese director than the achingly cool Wong Kar-wai. When it was revealed that Wong was going to tackle the story of legendary martial arts practitioner Ip Man with frequent collaborator Tony Leung along for the ride, excitement levels were obviously dangerously high and only set to rise. However, the project never quite seemed to get off the ground and, in fact, several other Ip Man movies were made in the meantime including the hugely successful series starring Donnie Yen the third of which is currently in development. The film finally found its way to the Berlin Film Festival in 2013 and received a brief cinema run in the UK last year but is only now reaching UK homes courtesy of Metrodome.

As usual with Wong who’s never quite managed to find the “save & quit” button, The Grandmaster exists in three different versions – the first being the original “Chinese cut” which runs 130 minutes, the second the “Berlin Cut” which runs 123 minutes and then there’s the “Weinstein Cut” which is 108 minutes long. If alarm bells are already ringing on hearing the name Weinstein, you are unfortunately correct – the UK release is limited to the shorter Weinstein cut. Not only is the film 18 minutes shorter than the longest version, it is an entirely different movie. Subplots have been streamlined or removed altogether, scenes have been reordered and rearranged and crucially additional voice over and explanatory title cards have been added for the “benefit” of an international audience. Seeing as few people will have the opportunity to see either of the other cuts of the film, there’s little point in explicating every last difference but suffice to say if you do have the opportunity to view the 130 minute Chinese version of the film it is a much better option than this overly accommodating “Ladybird Book” style international offering.

As for the plot of this Weinstein version, it runs more like a traditional martial arts thriller with Ip Man as the challenger who must fight various bosses to become the king of martial artists with some stuff about not kowtowing to the Japanese thrown in. The film has been “refocused” to centre more definitely on Ip Man himself as THE Grandmaster whereas the Chinese cut of the film situates him slightly to one side of things – almost an impassive observer of the chaotic events which over took Chinese society from the mid 1930s through to the early 1950s as seen through the mirror of the popularism of the kung-fu world both real and imaginary. In fact, in the Chinese  version the real story is arguably that of Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er whose tragic life story serves as a metaphor for the dangers of a stubborn adherence to traditional values. Left with little to reflect on, this Ip Man’s story is relegated to a martial arts serial style retelling of the early adventures of the man who went on to train Bruce Lee which is both reductive and actually a little insulting.

The Chinese cut of the film is a sweeping, operatic epic rich with restrained emotions and barely suppressed personal, and implied national, tragedies. Most obviously the subtleties of the central love story between Ip Man and Gong Er are all but lost in this version as the scenes which allowed them to build up the necessarily emotional resonance have either ended up on the cutting room floor or been rearranged ruining the careful rhythms of their relationship and robbing the film of its beating heart in the process. Adding to the zombified feeling are the various title cards interspersed throughout the film which simply display a a few stage directions in an extremely ugly white font, almost like the kind you might see in the restoration of a rare film in which some reels are missing and the only way to fill in the blanks for the audience is to provide a scene synopsis for the intervening action. To put it bluntly, this is an extremely amateurish solution which both takes you out of the ongoing action of the film and adds to the feeling that one is being talked down to.

However, it isn’t all bad. The beautifully balletic fight sequences and often stunning cinematography have both made it through largely unscathed. The film has an undeniable aesthetic appeal and those action scenes are just as exciting as they are good to look at. Likewise, the central performances, though often frustrated by the problems raised by this new edit, are universally strong though it’s shame that Zhang Ziyi’s quite extraordinary work here is being unfairly disrupted by the butchering of her character arc. Coming to the film cold entirely unaware that another version exists, you may feel it’s a so so art house kung-fu movie with a bit too much talking, not enough fighting and altogether too much too much distance between the two but perhaps not find it altogether unenjoyable.

It’s a shame that the UK will likely never see the longer cut of The Grandmaster. Though apparently Wong Kar-wai worked closely with Harvey Weinstein to create a version that was more accessible to non Chinese viewers, it’s difficult to believe this extremely dumbed down approach could really be what he was looking for. After all, there is no dubbed track here – viewers opting to watch a subtitled film most likely aren’t looking for something familiar, they’ve chosen it because they’re interested enough in another culture to spend two hours exploring it. They almost certainly don’t need the kind of bald explanatory text offered here (though, really, who would?) and will most likely feel insulted at having been treated like children who need every last little thing explained in painful detail. Nevertheless, if this is the only way to see the latest film from Wong Kar-wai, there is still a fair amount to enjoy but be aware that it’s far from the true version of The Grandmaster and it may be worth your while to seek out the 130 minute Chinese cut to see Wong’s complete vision.


 

The Grandmasters – Full length trailer!

 

Ladies and Gentlemen! Today is a miraculous day for it seems Wong Kar Wai may actually have  finished a film. Wong has been working on The Grandmasters for some years during in which time we’ve had two films starring Donnie Yen among others to have dealt with the life of Ip Man – the man who taught Bruce Lee. Numerous problems and delays have seen the production of this film constantly in flux with release dates slipping over a period of years yet the film now seems to have a fairly solid date for its Chinese release – 18th December 2012. Assuming all goes well (and the film really, actually is finished) Chinese viewers at least will finally get to see Wong Kar Wai’s latest collaboration with frequent leading actor Tony Leung. Of course even if this date is kept to there’s no predicting when we will finally be able to see this in the West (well, the Anglophone world) but happily it is a matter of when rather than if Wong’s version of this now familiar tale will finally hit our shores. The trailer at least looks spectacular so if that’s anything to go on The Grandmasters could be something very special indeed.