With Japan's aggressive designs on China simmering, Manchuria in 1928 was not the best time or place for a handsome, sensitive Japanese man to fall in love with a beautiful Chinese woman. University students with a mutual passion for art and literature -- as well as for each other -- Toru Nakamura's Itami and Ziyi Zhang's Cynthia are caught up in a romantic idyll. But no sooner has Itami been ordered home for military duty than Cynthia witnesses the savage assassination of her brother, a journalist with a small anti-Japanese paper, at the hands of Japanese extremists.
This wrenching prologue, in which images of brutality abruptly replace those of tenderness, sets in motion Lou Ye's suspenseful and complex romantic melodrama "Purple Butterfly," which takes its title from a Shanghai resistance group formed to combat Japan's unofficial occupation of the city by 1931.
As atmospheric and moody as a film noir, the stylish, sometimes perplexing "Purple Butterfly" is a remarkable period piece, evoking the bustling, dense and increasingly dangerous Shanghai of the '30s. No longer a pigtailed and demure student, Cynthia has become a glamorous, assured young woman, a veritable Asian Rita Hayworth, transformed by her brother's terrible fate into a fearless member of the Purple Butterfly who now calls herself Ding Hui. Just as the group is forming plans to assassinate Yamamoto, head of the Japanese secret service in Shanghai, Itami returns as a secret agent reporting to Yamamoto.
Inevitably, Cynthia's and Itami's paths will cross, and just as inevitably her superior, Xie Ming (Feng Yuanzheng), will decide that their best chance at eliminating Yamamoto is for Cynthia to gain proximity to him through Itami. Increasingly, the film becomes like a high-stakes poker game: How much does Itami either suspect or know about Cynthia's resistance activities -- if anything at all? Does he still love her? She certainly regards him as the enemy, but how certain can she be that she no longer loves him? And then there's a wild card in the deck: Szeto (Liu Ye), a well-tailored young man who arrives at the Shanghai railroad station to meet his telephone operator fiancee, Yiling (Li Bingbing), only to have a case of mistaken identity plunge him into a savage nightmare.
"Purple Butterfly" affords a terrific role for Ziyi Zhang, who literally catapulted to international fame with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which she has consolidated with appearances in Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" and even "Rush Hour 2." She is a genuine star, a compellingly exquisite beauty with formidable resources as an actress, which Lou Ye taps extensively. Her Cynthia is an innately strong, intelligent woman whose courage and emotions are constantly put to extreme tests. Zhang has that crucial gift of holding herself in check at just the right moments for maximum dramatic impact and psychological complexity.
Zhang is rightly the film's dominant presence -- "Purple Butterfly" is her story -- but the strength of Nakamura's suave, sophisticated Itami, Yuanzheng's forceful Xie Ming and Liu Ye's distraught Szeto make Zhang's performance seem even more effective. Indeed, "Purple Butterfly" is all the more entertaining for anchoring its romantic sweep in an essential seriousness about the tragic and chaotic era in which it is stunningly set.
MPAA rating: Rated R for strong violence and a scene of sexuality
Times guidelines: Some strong violence, some sensuality
Ziyi Zhang...Cynthia/Ding Hui
Feng Yuanzheng...Xie Ming
A Palm Pictures release of a Shanghai Film Studio, Lou Yu Ltd. and Wild Bunch presentation of a Shanghai Film Studio/Dream Factory production in association with Shanghai SFS Digital Media Co. Writer-director Lou Ye. Producers Zhu Yongde, Wei Wang. Executive producers Jean-Louis Piel, Vincent Maraval, Alain de la Mata. Cinematographer Wang Yu. Editors Che Xiaohong, Lou Ye. Music Jrg Lemberg. Production-costume designer Liu Weixin. In Mandarin and some Japanese and Vietnamese, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (at Fairfax Avenue), (323) 655-4010.