Monday 16 May 2011

The Butterfly Murders (1979)

THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS was directed by Tsui Hark in 1979 and was released in Hong Kong under the title 'Die ban'.  It stars Siu Min Lau, Michelle Mai and Shu Tang Wong and is an example of the wuxia genre which is exteremly popular in the East, by which I mean China, not Norfolk.

I suppose wuxia can be described very generally as the Chinese equivalent of the Japanese samurai genre, which in turn means it is broadly comparable to the American western in its adherence to an ostensibly heroic martial code.  Think of pretty much any Clint Eastwood western, or the bunch of hired hands - each with their own unique skills - in Richard Brooks' THE PROFESSIONALS, and you'd be right on the money.  Honour comes into it too but not to the extent of the unquestioning loyalty of the samurai.

I'd be lying if I said I totally understood the plot of this movie.  I think it has something to do with a cold war among some 72 different clans that are seeking to usurp the overlord who maintains a fragile peace in a region of (I think) medieval China.  This boss replies to a request for aid from an obscure acquaintance whose castle is beseiged by hordes of killer butterflies.  They arrive to find the castle apparently deserted, save for a terrified deaf mute servant girl and a young scribe who is trying to find out who has been selling forged documents purporting to be his work.

There's loads going on and the (English-speaking) viewer's task of figuring it all out isn't made any easier by the fact that the subtitles are in pidgin English and sometimes disappear before you've had time to read them, due to Hark's often abrupt cutting.

There is also a weird soundtrack that veers from a gruesomely sentimental theme song to electronic bleeps and warbles, which are used to indicate characters using their special abilities (that function almost as super powers).  The dubbing, it almost goes without saying, is atrocious in both of the foreign languages (Mandarin and Cantonese) on my DVD.  And the acting is as big as you might imagine.

But these are standard elements in Asian genre movies so you shouldn't really consider them to be faults.  Okay, they are not how we prefer our films to be in the west but when watching foreign cinema you have to approach it on its own terms.  Consequently, I really enjoyed it.  It's a rollicking adventure with trapdoors, hidden catacombs, sword fights, fist fights, kung fu fights, great sets and locations, great costumes and some neat special effects.

The famous gravity-defying fight sequences in better-known films such as CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS have their roots in films such as this.

Asian genre directors are becoming more known to western audiences these days, a process which started with Kurosawa but in more recent times was picked up by John Woo.  Tsui Hark is perhaps a little unlucky that he never really became well known internationally.  He certainly has the skills: some of the visuals here are really terrific - such as the entire castle draped in nets to defend against the butterflies.

As usual, it took western audiences a long time to cotton on to the quality of some Asian genre cinema and by the time they did, Hark had been overtaken by directors like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou.  They are all of similar ages but Hark started his career a lot earlier (this being his debut feature) and so perhaps became identified, wrongly, as being of an older generation.  He's supremely talented though and if you've never heard of him this would be a fine place to start putting that right.

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