Fong (Siu-Ming Lau) narrates the backstory of where the martial world stands (all we need to know is that there was some ruckus, we’re currently in the “Quiet Period,” and there are now seventy-two forces who control the martial world, the only one with which we need to concern ourselves being the Ten Flags Clan led by Tien [Shu Tong Wong]). After the murder of a paper mill owner prompted by a counterfeit copy of Fong’s memoirs, The Ten Flags are summoned to Shum Castle, where Lord Shum (Kuo-Chu Chang) is hiding in fear for his life. It seems some flagitious ne’er-do-well is using poison butterflies to off people, and it all ties in to a secret deep beneath the castle’s surface.
The Butterfly Murders (aka Dip Bin) is Tsui Hark’s first feature length film following his graduation from The University of Texas and his return to Hong Kong (I always remember his anecdote [I believe from an issue of Fangoria] where he was filming a dance or ballet class as a student, and his teacher pointed out to him that the shadows the dancers cast were more visually interesting than the dancers themselves; that is, a different way of looking at cinema). The film itself is chock full of jump cuts and a storyline that assumes we’ll catch up to whatever is happening onscreen (and, yet again, we have to look at this as being, one, partially a cultural thing with how the Chinese construct and engage with film, and two, possibly something caused, at least in part, by the editing that happened oh-so-often after a foreign [but especially Chinese] film left its director’s hands and traveled abroad).
And yet, this disjunctive quality aids in bolstering the mystery element of the film. The Butterfly Murders, in many ways, is very much an “old dark house” movie. Disparate guests with nothing in common are invited to an unexpected place. Said place is hauntingly barren and forbidding. Said guests are embroiled in a mystery which could cost them their lives. There are secrets and twists that appear to come out of nowhere but do, in fact, have explanations. There are hidden chambers which house aspects of the truth. There’s an odd butler-y character in the form of Chee (Hsiao-Ling Hsu), who is deaf and muter but also far better looking than most cranky, old cinematic butlers I’ve seen. The only thing really missing is the raging tempest outside (though the sky in the film always looks overcast, and you could look at the swarms of butterflies as being the storm which keeps everyone cooped up). The three main characters, Fong, Tien, and Green Shadow (Michelle Yim) play detective, piecing the puzzle together.
Since Fong is our audience perspective character, he plays the primary investigative role. He questions people but generally keeps out of things, observing and processing the goings-on as a scholar/scrutineer does. It’s he who will actually learn a lesson from the story, and, as he would pass it on to his eventual readers, Hark passes it on to the viewer. Fong chronicles tales of the martial world from what he has experienced in it and is highly regarded for this. This story is yet one more of these yarns, and it unfolds partly as a folk tale and partly as an accounting of what actually happened. Fong’s memoirs are valued because he is known as one of the great storytellers of his time, and the falseness of the writings being foisted off at the film’s opening is important because it’s telling us that the reality crafted in the writing of guys like Fong is valuable as historical documentation and as fashioning of the world in which everyone who isn’t a scholar/author lives. Flashbacks take us from the main story to spice up the proceedings, give us backstory, and show us that there are common legends in this world. Therefore, we get the two clowns robbing a grave who are attacked by the butterflies as well as several shots of the aftermath of Magic Fire’s (Eddy Ko) wrath.
This world is supported by myths and legends as surely as ours is by science and nature. This is why the heroes of this world have supposedly magic powers. And yet, the filmmakers very clearly show us that these abilities are a combination of skill and gadgetry. For example, Magic Fire can’t actually control and create fire. He is a master of pyrotechnics and explosives. Similarly, Thousand Hands has all manner of sharp, pointy objects he can hurl en masse with pinpoint accuracy. His moniker has nothing to do with him having a thousand hands (though that would have been kind of neat to have seen). It’s a simultaneous aggrandizement and de-mythologizing of these special people. Fong’s writing creates larger than life characters, while Hark shows us that there are real world explanations for their gifts. But in the end, the martial world of the film will continue to be colored by and filled with Fong’s point of view, not Hark’s.
Oddly enough, for a film set in the martial arts world, there isn’t a ton of fighting in it. Actually, I should append that. There is a decent amount, but it takes a while to get to any of it, and, to be perfectly honest, you can tell that Hark was still very much an enthusiastic novice (as an analogy, you almost need to ask yourself whether you’re interested in seeing Salvador Dali’s artwork from when he was four years old; personally, I would leap at the chance). For as many interesting shots/visuals we get there are just as many, if not more, that are so undisciplined in angle and movement, you almost can’t tell what’s going on, and the editing is as choppy as a prep cook. Nevertheless, it’s this sense of experimentation that turned Hark into the filmmaker he would become in a very short span of time. Additionally, the director seems to rein it in a sizable amount as the film rounds third base while ramping up the more fantastical components, and this is when the movie became most satisfying for me. Yes, you have to work with the film (arguably against it) to make heads or tails of it at the outset, but both the journey and its destination are worth it.
MVT: The mystery facet keeps the film together and even gels with the rest as it moves along.
Make or Break: If you can’t make it through the film’s first ten minutes, it won’t be for you. I loved the challenge of it (as a Western viewer) and where it led.