Since her brother's untimely death at the hands of a Japanese suicide bomber several years earlier, Cynthia -- aka Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi) -- has become a trusted operative of the Shanghai-based underground resistance organization known as Purple Butterfly. Patriotism has long since displaced any lingering feelings for her former Japanese lover -- Hidehiko Itami (Nakamura Toru) -- whom she has neither seen nor heard from since he returned to Tokyo on the eve of the Manchurian invasion. Then, in the cruelest of fated twists, Itami suddenly returns... as the Japanese agent assigned to uprooting and eliminating Purple Butterfly.
In this exceedingly accomplished film, Lou is once again saddling his dazzling, dreamlike imagery on a westernized genre. In "Suzhou River" it was the Hitchcockian thriller; here it's a Graham Greene-style wartime melodrama of the "lovers turned enemies" variety. The result, however, is much the same as with "Suzhou River" -- a drama that strives to visually seduce the audience even as it endeavors to jolt them with unexpected turns and tragic twists. Part of what makes the story so much more compelling than its Hollywood counterparts is the devastating way in which circumstances entangle the lives of innocents and bystanders, virtually erasing any sense of moral justification on either side.
One of the most commanding visual stylists in a country that has no shortage of such, Lou continues to be particularly adept at preserving distinctly Chinese sensibilities, even when liberally mixing them with Western constructs. Like his colleagues Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai, among others, Lou prefers the silent dialogue of gazes and glances to that of spoken words, extracting heart-rending performances from his stars that hark back to the days of silent cinema greats. In turn, he is able to fill the void with a sound design every bit as calculated and artful as the film's photography, employing auditory counterpoint and irony to further deepen an already rapturous experience.
Audiences who've become accustomed to Zhang Ziyi as the first lady of A-list martial arts fare in such films as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero," "Zu Warriors" and "House of Flying Daggers," have likely forgotten that it was her 1999 debut in Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home" that first heralded her as a dramatic actress and the heir apparent to Zhang's onetime leading lady, Gong Li. It is that devastating aspect of her talent that is again on display here and which, along with that of costars Nakamura, Ye Liu and Yuanzheng Feng constitutes one of the great ensemble performances of recent Chinese cinema.
Lou, meanwhile, appears possessed of a vision that is increasingly distinctive in both style and substance. With just four films in 10 years, he has carved himself a niche that should serve him, as well as audiences, quite well for the foreseeable future. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Liu Ye, Feng Yuangzheng, Toru Nakamura and Li Bingbing. Directed and written by Lou Ye. Produced by Wang Wei and Zhu Yongde. A Palm release. Drama. Mandarin-language; subtitled. Rated R for strong violence and a scene of sexuality. Running time: 123 min