Purple Butterfly (Zi hudie, China-France 2003)

Hui Ding (Zhang Ziyi) and Itami Hidehiko (Nakamura Toru)

MUBI has recently included several films by the Chinese auteur Lou Ye as part of its rolling monthly programme. They titled their mini-season of Lou’s films ‘Freedom and Defiance: The Cinema of Lou Ye’.  Lou Ye (born 1965) made his first features in China in 1994 and 1995, but it was not until 2000 that he became well-known internationally through the screenings of Suzhou River at international festivals. Suzhou River got a UK release and I used it for a couple of education events associated with ideas about New Wave cinema in China. I think only one of Lou’s subsequent films has even managed even a DVD release in the UK.

Suzhou River gained attention for three reasons I think. First it appeared to be a deliberate attempt to ‘play’ with the narrative ideas of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (US 1957). Second, it did so using a subjective camera and other distinctive aesthetic choices and thirdly its presentation of Shanghai as a modern ‘global city’, coupled with the first two points, led to it being seen as a good example of a ‘postmodern’ film at a time when ‘postmodernity’ as a concept was fashionable.

Lou Ye found himself in 2000 being described as a ‘Sixth Generation’ Chinese director, something which he resisted. The label has to some extent stuck though it has now dropped out of discussions about contemporary Chinese art cinema. In 2000 it generally described a group of younger Chinese ‘independent’ filmmakers, born after the Cultural Revolution who sought to make low-budget films rather than progress through work with the major state-controlled studios. Co-productions with France, Japan etc. were not uncommon as were links to TV, popular music and other ‘non-cinematic’ institutions. MUBI’s reference to ‘Freedom and Defiance’ was prompted mainly by Lou’s 2006 film Summer Palace which confronts questions about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and led to a Chinese ban on Lou’s films for 5 years.

Hui Ding with her Chinese resistance leader played by Feng Yuanzheng

Purple Butterfly is in some ways a companion piece to Suzhou River, again a film about a Shanghai romance with strong hints of film noir and a complex narrative structure. The film starts in Manchuria in 1928 where there is already a significant Japanese presence following victory in the Japanese-Russian War of 1895 and the subsequent control over the Southern Railway. Japan had also annexed Korea, bordering Manchuria to the east. Zhang Ziyi plays Hui Ding, a young Han Chinese working in a bookshop and learning Japanese. She has fallen in love with Itami Hidehiko (Nakamura Tôru) an older Japanese man and the couple spend blissful hours together, seemingly oblivious of the gathering tension in Manchuria. But eventually Itami is recalled to Japan.

The narrative jumps forward to 1930 and the similarly febrile atmosphere of Shanghai, the ‘global city’, a trading port where the Western nations have ‘concessions’. In the next few months Japan will fully invade Manchuria and prepare for invasion of the rest of China. In the meantime, Shanghai is awash with secret agents and resistance groups of various kinds. A young Chinese couple meeting at the railway station are mistaken for another couple and are attacked because they are believed to be carrying secret documents. The young woman (played by Li Bingbing) is killed but her partner Szeto (Ye Liu) survives and begins a search for vengeance. Hui Ding (aka ‘Cynthia’) is now in Shanghai as a member of a secret Chinese resistance group ‘Purple Butterfly’ and it won’t be long before Itami arrives in Shanghai as a Japanese secret agent.

Hui Ding and Itami Hidehiko together in a Shanghai nightclub

Given the relatively simple plot this is a surprisingly long film (128 mins) with some sharp bursts of violence as the agents of the Japanese and Chinese clash. But it is also languorous in dealing with the personal relationships and uses flashbacks, forcing the audience to piece together their understanding of the narrative flow. The big question is will Ding and Hidehiko get together again? If they do, will love triumph over commitment and patriotism? And how will Szeto view Purple Butterfly – which may have been responsible for his girlfriend’s death?

I found the film to be less successful than Suzhou River in fully engaging my attention and I was surprised by this as the background for the romance interests me a great deal. It may be that, as a film drawing heavily on film noir and stories of treachery and deceit, it fails to offer all the genre pleasures inherent in such narratives. Lou seems more interested in the look and ‘feel’ of Shanghai in the thirties than in the narrative events themselves. Ironically he ends the film with newsreel footage from the full-scale Sino-Japanese War that developed after these initial skirmishes – as if he had a wider perspective all along.

Perhaps I was spoiled by my relatively recent experience of watching The Age of Shadows (South Korea 2016) a genuine ‘resistance thriller’ by Kim Jee-woon set in Seoul in the 1920s? That film didn’t have the same level of intense ‘romance’ but it offered much more beautifully choreographed action. However, I don’t want to ignore Lou Ye’s beautiful evocation of Shanghai in 1930 or the strong central performances. Cinematographer Wang Yu (associated with Jia Zhang-ke and Ann Hui among others) offers us many close-ups in scenes with shallow focus and creates a real sense of the crowded streets of night-time Shanghai.  I wanted to watch more of the MUBI season, but as is often the case, I couldn’t find the time to complete my viewings of two other films before they disappeared.

This clip from the film has French subtitles and demonstrates the camerawork and lighting that creates the noir world of Shanghai:

Stones for the Rampart (Kamienie na szaniec, Poland 2014)

The 'Grey Scouts' attempt to rescue a prisoner of the Gestapo

The ‘Grey Scouts’ attempt to rescue a prisoner of the Gestapo

Unlike several other recent mainstream Polish films in the UK that have been released ‘on date’ with Warsaw, Stones for the Rampart had to wait over a year after its Polish release. An adaptation from a 1943 ‘patriotic novel’, the film directed by Robert Glinski offers a story about older teenagers who are members of a clandestine Scout troop known in English as the ‘Grey Ranks’. Worried by the possibility that the boys’ actions against the Nazi occupiers of Warsaw might create more trouble than it is worth, a group of the Scouts are recruited into the ‘Home Army’ – the official Polish resistance. There are a number of links/categories that this film brings to mind and, although it is clearly a very specific context, it does reveal generic features. The most obvious link is to Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy of war-time films produced in the 1950s and in particular the first part A Generation (1955). This too was based on a novel about teenage resistance fighters in Warsaw (with Roman Polanski as one of the younger boys). The new film also relates to Hollywood’s attempts to enable familiar genre films to appeal to younger audiences through stories featuring younger versions of generic characters, e.g. in films like the Westerns Young Guns (1988) and Young Guns 2 (1990). Finally we might consider this Polish film as another example of European film industries re-visiting the Second World War and national myths about resistance to occupation (or in the German case, resistance to Nazi ideologies such as in Sophie Scholl (Germany 2005)).

Probably the first point to note is that in re-visiting the resistance struggle in Warsaw, contemporary filmmakers are working in a very different context to Wajda in in the 1950s. They are not under any pressure to highlight the importance of the communist resistance groups – indeed they may feel pressurised not to mention them. I confess that I do not have the historical knowledge about the Polish resistance in Warsaw to know when the communist resistance becomes important. The Home Army with its allegiance to the Polish government-in-exile in London was certainly the much larger force and I didn’t register any direct references to communist activity. The sensitivity of these issues makes it very difficult for non-Polish speakers to decode all the subtitled dialogue and written texts shown in the film. I’m not surprised therefore to discover what seem to be very negative comments about this film. In the review in the Polish version of Newsweek, Michał Wachnicki lambasts the film for poor dialogue and lack of realism. Google Translate itself offers only a rough approximation of Wachnicki’s arguments but he seems to be quoting Hollywood films such as Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket as successful war films. I would have thought that a film like Rossellini’s Rome Open City would have been a better benchmark. By contrast, the most positive English language review is from an American priest. Father Dennis Zdenek Kriz from Chicago suggests that the film offers important moral questions about the sacrifice of young lives in a just cause.

What do I make of all this without the language and cultural historical knowledge? The young people depicted are on the whole middle-class with all the resources that implies. The air of ‘amateurish’ resistance is contrasted with the brutality of the Nazi occupiers towards the working-class people on the street who are randomly executed in retaliation. In some ways the film is quite ‘realist’ in showing credible psychological reactions to events – the ending of the film is poignant in the confrontation between a young German soldier and an equally inexperienced ‘scout leader’/student. The complex relationship between the Home Army leadership, the scout troop and the other more isolated ‘agents’ (including the parents of the boys who have roles their children don’t know about) isn’t perhaps as clear as it might be. What is clear, however, is that the Home Army is a much more substantial force in 1943 than the resistance in many other Nazi-occupied countries. The inclusion in the narrative of the relationships between the young men of the scouts and their girlfriends is potentially problematic and this is perhaps where I feel most inadequate to deal with the dialogue.

I’m glad I saw this film and I wish it had found a wider audience in the UK. As far as I know it has only been seen at selected Cineworld cinemas. It is certainly an interesting addition to the increasingly large collection of WWII stories of resistance.

Trailer (no English subs):

Flammen & Citronen (Flame and Citron, Denmark 2008)

Thure Lindhardt as Flame (left) and Mads Mikkelsen as Citron

Thanks to BBC4, I’ve finally managed to see this film which forms part of a recent surge of World War II films produced in countries occupied by the Nazis. I hope to report on Max Manus from Norway soon and there is already a posting on Winter in Wartime (Netherlands 2009). Another recent title is the Hollywood film Defiance (2008) – though it was made by Polish-American Edward Zwick.

Each of these films explores an aspect of war in occupied territories that isn’t so well known outside the domestic market and may indeed be news to younger domestic audiences. The films tend to have been big successes at home and to have gained wider distribution overseas. ‘Flame’ and ‘Citron’ were historical figures, working as assassins for the Danish resistance. Posing as police officers they carry out orders from British intelligence delivered via a controller in Copenhagen. The local police and ambulance services support them but they have to be careful not to attract the attention of the collaborationist police force comprising Danish Nazis – and, of course, the whole panoply of German Occupation forces, but especially the Gestapo.

‘Flame’ (he has red hair) is a 23 year-old in 1943. His father, a hotel owner sent him to Germany in 1940 and his exposure to the Nazis he worked alongside confirmed his worst fears. ‘Citron’ (named because he worked on Citroen cars as a mechanic) is a family man and the war wrecks his marriage. The two aim to assassinate only Danish collaborators and difficulties arise when they are told to kill three Germans, including a senior army officer and his wife. From this point on it becomes impossible for the duo to know who is ‘controlling’ them and what the eventual aims of the resistance might be. It seems that they can only depend on each other.

This is a much darker film than the Norwegian and Dutch films. The production, by Nimbus Films included shoots in the Babelsberg Studio in Potsdam as well as in Copenhagen and Prague. Director Ole Christian Madsen used a moving camera and staged action in long shot on almost empty streets but also in crowded bars etc. Overall the sthe production cost nearly 7 million Euros – very expensive by Danish standards. I thought everything worked very well. Madsen claims to have been inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres. I’m not sure that it reaches as high as that masterpiece, but certainly I found it gripping and thought-provoking. I confess that after two series of The Killing and now halfway through Borgen on BBC4, I’m starting to spot Danish actors. There are three in this including Peter Mygind who plays a seemingly unreliable character, just as he does in Borgen. Stine Stengade (also in a similar role to her Borgen character) strikes perhaps the only odd note as a rather conventional femme fatale figure in what is otherwise a downbeat and realist portrayal of resistance activity, far removed from Hollywood heroics.

The more I see of these kinds of films, the more I admire the people who could carry out resistance under occupation – not because I’m being carried along on a nostalgic flag-waving wave but because I recognise human beings taking risks and accepting both likely failure and possible death because they believe in something or someone.