The chronology can’t be trusted, but you can count on rain in Lou Ye’s swollen and slow-moving drama Purple Butterfly, set in a perpetually wet Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the 1930s. The title refers to a resistance group among whose partisans is Cynthia (Ziyi Zhang, the hardest-working woman in Chinese show business) — or is her name Ding Hui? Either way, she carries on a secret romance with Itami (Toru Nakamura), a Japanese agent. And in scenes glued together by elliptical, school?of?Wong Kar-wai moviemaking, she’s in an In the Mood for Love kind of mood for love.
But what’s love got to do with Szeto (Liu Ye), an ordinary guy, mistaken for an assassin, who gets caught up in the intrigue? Or with the bloody, violent gunplay that introduces a soupçon of Sam Peckinpah into the mix? Lou Ye is clearly passionate about both his history (there are moments of staged grandeur out of a British war epic) and the grand cinematic intentions of his storytelling. But too often, he shakes off the very viewer who is trying so dutifully to follow his snaky trail. Too often, Purple Butterfly is as impenetrable as Zhang’s placid, obdurate beauty.