Tag Archives: romance thriller

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:

Ek Tha Tiger (India (Hindi) 2012)

A Cuban interlude in a Hindi film

Ek Tha Tiger introduced the pairing of Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif as ‘super spies’ in a Hindi cinema blockbuster for Eid 2012 that became a big commercial hit. It’s interesting to re-visit now that the sequel has been similarly successful after release during the Christmas period of 2017. Though both films are instantly recognisable as mainstream Hindi cinema (or ‘Bollywood’ if you prefer) there are some interesting aspects of both films – and the films themselves have significant differences.

Tiger and Zoya meet in Dublin

In this first outing, Indian RAW agent ‘Tiger’ (Salman Khan) is sent to Dublin where an Indian scientist is working at Trinity College and potentially vulnerable to surveillance by Pakistani agents of ISI who could steal valuable data from him. Tiger and Gopi (Ranvir Shorey) attempt to make contact with the scientist but only get as far as his part-time housekeeper Zoya (Katrina Kaif). Tiger falls quite heavily for Zoya but is attacked by Pakistani agents. Perhaps it’s a SPOILER but I can’t really discuss the film without revealing that Zoya is herself a Pakistani agent. The Dublin sequence ends without revealing what finally happened, but Tiger clearly hasn’t forgotten Zoya and eventually sets out to find her at an Istanbul conference. From here on the two decide to run away together despite knowing that neither security service will rest until they have been silenced in case they compromise their employers. In the last section of the film they are discovered in Cuba.

This very sketchy outline perhaps suggests the kind of ‘romance thriller’ that is often termed ‘Hitchcockian’ since it became that director’s most favoured format, most famously perhaps in North by Northwest (1959) with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. This might sound an unlikely reference but there are actually a number of parallels. Like Hitchcock, director Kabir Khan (whose background appears to be in documentary) has an eye for exciting action sequences in well-known settings and Ek Tha Tiger makes excellent use of Dublin city centre with a remarkable supertram fight sequence. Istanbul is the second well-exploited location and full use is made of old Havana for both romantic and action sequences.

The Dublin dance sequence sees Zoya (Katrina Kaif) as part of a pipe band.

Most Indian popular films are ‘multi-genre’ and here the two elements of the romance thriller are joined by the extension into fight sequences from international cinema. The other familiar genre tropes refer to the use of music in Indian blockbusters. There are, if memory serves, two traditional choreographed dance sequences. One which effectively pauses the action in Dublin and a final credit sequence in a fourth location, not identified. Possibly Morocco? In addition there are other songs accompanying, for instance, an extended montage of the couple enjoying the delights of Havana. This is a typical example of how more recent Hindi films have preserved the idea of six songs promoted separately to the film, but reduced the number of ‘performance songs’. Ek Tha Tiger runs for 132 minutes, perhaps 30-50 minutes less than the traditional masala film of earlier periods.

The Pakistan-India history of conflict is reflected in the fights in the film – the conflict is differently handled in the second film. I was intrigued that Havana was used as a location. It was still seen mainly as a tourist destination, but I was impressed that the two central characters did get into the more interesting parts of the city (watching a boxing match for instance) and I did detect a different ‘feel’ to the way in which the narrative was working compared to Anglo-American representations of the city.

Having watched both ‘Tiger’ films over a couple of days, I think I prefer this earlier film. (I’ve written about Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) on ‘The Case For Global Film’ blog.) Partly, my preference is because Ek Tha Tiger involves more ‘romance’ and fewer explosions. It has what seems to be a lighter touch and feels more coherent.

World Without Thieves (Tian xia wu zei, China/Hong Kong 2004)

Andy Lau (in the ridiculous wig) and Rene Liu as the con artists meet the naïve young man

This is the third film by Feng Xiaogang that we’ve reviewed on the blog and it stands up well alongside Assembly and Aftershock. Like those films, it is a ‘big’ genre film with major stars and an ‘uplifting’ tone. In some ways it proves to be the closest to a Hollywood film that I have seen from East Asia – yet there are elements in the film that are distinctively Chinese and which I’m not sure I fully appreciate.

I think that generically this is a romance thriller crossed with a heist movie (there is no heist as such, but many of the elements of a film like Ocean’s 11 are utilised), mainly staged on a long train journey from Tibet back towards Beijing. The romance couple are a pair of consummate con-artists and skilled thieves played by the major stars Andy Lau (as Wang Bo) from Hong Kong and Rene Liu (as Wang Li) from Taiwan. (Lau and Liu are both pop stars too – of ‘Cantopop and Mandopop’ respectively.) At the beginning of the narrative they are in the process of falling out after another successful con that has won them a BMW. She wants to quit and focus on her pregnancy, he wants to carry on. Her decision is confirmed by a visit to a Buddhist monastery, after which she befriends a young man returning to his village in the East with his savings from 5 years of work. He naïvely believes that there are no thieves in China and indeed announces on the train that he is carrying the money. She decides to try to protect him from thieves – and this probably means thwarting her erstwhile partner. On the train there are various characters in disguise including a gang of thieves led by ‘Dr Li’ (played by the famous Chinese actor Ge You) and a police detective. The main part of the film becomes a four-way battle of wits and trickery plus spectacular action between Andy Lau’s character, the thieves and the police with Rene Liu attempting to protect the hapless young man and his money.

I love train movies and this one includes many of the familiar elements of chases through corridors, dining car, private rooms etc., false identities, overheard conversations etc. It also introduces an extra dimension utilising the space beneath the carriage roof and the ceiling of individual compartments – and of course the carriage roof itself as the site for fights. The train sequences feature several confrontations which Feng films in the exaggerated style familiar from martial arts films but here they are performed in the confined spaces of the train. These scenes – as well as the ‘Scope photography of the train in the landscapes of Western China – provide the spectacle in the film. However the real story of the film is the relationship between the central couple and the promotion of a kind of family solidarity which is constructed via the warring ‘parents’, the pregnancy and the attempt to protect the boy (he’s a young 21) and his money. This makes the film recognisably a family drama to match Aftershock. Lau and Liu work well together for me. Both stars are in their 40s and I found their squabbling and occasional glimpses of real feelings to be believable.

The ideological work of the film includes an attempt to portray Tibet as an integral part of China and an enthusiastic celebration of the new railway line as a prestige achievement. The crime scenario draws on what I understand to be a common occurrence of theft on Chinese Railways. The marked difference from Hollywood action films perhaps comes in the relatively slow pace of the beginning and end sequences of the narrative and the use of music – classical strings rather than the more rock/techno-flavoured scores of American action films.

Feng should be better-known in the West. His films are an antidote to the more scholarly action/costume films of Zhang Yimou or the indie/arthouse style of Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke. It is Feng’s films which are likely to carry elements of Chinese popular culture into the future global blockbuster films. The description of him as ‘the Steven Spielberg of China’ has more than a grain of plausibility in reference to representations of a kind of middle-class Chinese life (however that class status is achieved).

(There is one mystery. IMdb lists the Chinese version as a few minutes shorter than the ‘International’ version – yet the Chinese version includes a pre-credit sequence showing the con by which they acquire the BMW. Does anyone know what was cut from the rest of the film for the Chinese release?)