Zi Hudi (Purple Butterfly) (2003)



Director:     Ye Lou.

Starring:      Ziyi Zhang (Cynthia/Ding Hui), Ye Liu (Szeto), Yuanzheng Feng (Xie Ming), Tru Nakamura (Hidehiko Itami), Bingbing Li (Tang Yiling), Kin Ei (Yamamoto).

espionage and counter-espionage between the Japanese and Chinese in Shanghai


Good movie.  This movie was very confusing.  I will give you my version of what happened and hopefully I am close to the meaning of the movie. 

Japan replaced Russian influence in Inner Manchuria as a result of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).  Japan laid the South Manchurian Railway in 1906 to Port Arthur. 

Hidehiko Itami is a Japanese fellow working in Manchuria in 1928.  This is three years before the armed invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese.  Itami is in love with a Chinese girl Cynthia.  As Japan gears up for the war, Itami is called back to Japan and recruited for the Japanese secret service.  Cynthia is heart-broken.  To make matters worse for Cynthia, her brother (who has been producing flyers calling for a Chinese boycott of Japanese goods) is killed by a right wing Japanese extremist who shouts: "You dare insult Japan!"

The Japanese invade Manchuria in September 1931.  Cynthia moves to Shanghai and changes her name to Ding Hui. 

There is, however, more than one love story in this movie.  In Shanghai Szeto is in love with a young woman named Yiling Tang.  They love dancing and going to the movies.  Szeto has to go on a journey.

Szeto returns on the train and Yiling is waiting to greet him.  And here is where the two love stories start to get mixed up with each other.  In a hurry, Szeto graps the wrong coat.  The coat actually belongs to Hidehiko Itami, who is pretending to be working with the Chinese underground.  The Chinese underground is also at the train station.  Cynthia is there with Xie Ming, along with another man from the Chinese underground who will serve as the contact man.  Because Szeto has the coat with a purple butterfly on it, the symbol for the Chinese underground, the contact man gives Szeto a suitcase with information about which Japanese men to assassinate, two of them being Hidehiko Itami and his boss, Mr. Yamamoto.  Szeto tries to tell the contact man that he is the wrong man and give back the suitcase, but another Japanese secret service man tries to grab the suitcase and the contact man opens fire killing the Japanese secret agent.

Szeto is forced into a car, but while driving away Cynthia (assuming the mistaken man has double-crossed them) opens fire on the car, managing only to kill Yiling Tang (Szeto's lover) by mistake.  She had jumped on the runner of the car to talk to Szeto.    The driver tells Szeto to hide.  At a hotel, Szeto opens the suitcase and reads about the plan to kill Itami and Yamamoto.  He follows the orders in the suitcase and delivers it to a contact person in disguise as a prostitute, which turns out to be Cynthia. There is another gunfight between the Chinese underground and the Japanese secret service. 

Itami takes over in the secret service office for another officer returning to Japan.  Meanwhile, Szeto has been picked up by the Japanese and is being badly beaten.  Itami intervenes because he knows that Szeto is not part of the Chinese underground.  But before letting Szeto go, Itami says Szeto has to find out and provide some information on the Chinese underground to him.   

The Chinese underground has worked out another plan to kill Yamamoto.  They decide to use Cynthia to seduce her former lover Itami in order to get to Yamamoto.  Meanwhile, Szeto recognizes Cynthia as the killer of his girl friend.  He starts to keep tabs on her. 

Will Cynthia actually use her former lover to get to Yamamoto?  Is Itami aware of Cynthia's double role (revealed to him by Szeto) and will he kill Cynthia before she can complete her mission?  Or will Cynthia and Itami come together again and escape to Tokyo? 

Some movies keep you legitimately in suspense.  But others keep you in suspense by not telling you anything or possibly deliberately misleading you?  This movie seems to fall into the latter category.  It was pretty confusing.  I had to go back to the start of the movie and slowly go through the sequence of events during the shootout at the train station.  To repeat myself, I hope I got it right.  The director sure likes to use long periods of silence.  At the beginning I got lost in my own thoughts during an extended period of silence and suddenly jerked back to the present to realize I was watching a movie.   

Nevertheless, the movie is worth watching.  I especially enjoyed watching Ziyi Zhang as Cynthia.  I kept wondering what would happen between her character and her former lover and Itami. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


See Last Emperor (Bertolucci) (1987).