It’s not often that I watch a foreign language film without subtitles, but sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. For years I’ve been curious about Tsui Hark’s first three films, which have had limited distribution in the US at best. After I finally watched the Tokyo Shock DVD of We Are Going to Eat You, I discovered that YouTube had the other two films, Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind and Tsui’s first film, The Butterfly Murders. Unfortunately, The Butterfly Murders didn’t have subtitles, but since I’d watched the other two films I was anxious to see the other. It helped that the descriptions I read of it said the story was very confusing and not particularly memorable but it was visually arresting. I’m not sure what the source of the YouTube version is, but it has the yellow-green stains that I heard were present on a Mei Ah DVD from Hong Kong a few years back, so maybe it was ripped from that. Despite the stains and the pixellation, Tsui’s visual artistry was still apparent, and despite the fact that I had no idea who any of the large cast of characters were or what their agenda was, I still found the story pretty involving.
The movie is typically categorized as a wuxia, or heroic chivalry, story. Certainly it looks like an old school wuxia film, with clans of men in color-coded costumes, a female fighter who can zoom through the air on a wire, some outrageous weapons, and an underground labyrinth where people sneak around laying booby traps and discovering hidden lairs. What makes the film stand out to some long time observers of Chinese cinema is the way Tsui melds wuxia with other genres, particularly horror and murder mystery. Piecing together synopses I’ve found on the internet, the story begins when a man approaches a printer with a manuscript which he says is by the famous scholar Fong and which describes a bizarre attack of deadly butterflies on the inhabitants of an isolated castle. The manuscript turns out to be a forgery, but the attack is real. A group of fighters from the Tien Clan travel to the castle to investigate, and they are joined by the high-wire woman, Green Shadow. At the castle they discover Fong and three survivors of the butterfly attack, who are hiding out in the tunnels and caverns under the castle. As in an Agatha Christie novel, these people are gradually picked off by attacking butterflies, and eventually three vicious fighters known as the Thunders show up. Lots of fighting and killing ensues.
Tsui certainly cultivates the dark, ominous mood of a horror film. Stephen Teo has said The Butterfly Murders “evokes the mood if not the style of Hu’s A Touch of Zen,” and I think that’s in part a reference to the horror atmosphere, although the horror in Hu’s story is more of an eerie ghost story. Hu’s film also shifts genres as it progresses, although it does it in a more stepwise fashion than Tsui’s genre-blending. Perhaps even more intriguing to me is Daniel O’Brien’s comment in Spooky Encounters: A Gwailo’s Guide to Hong Kong Horror that “It’s brooding, ominous atmosphere was possibly influenced by Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, a film greatly admired by Tsui Hark.” Polanski’s film is one of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations, and he certainly brings some exploitation horror touches to the Bard’s murderous play. Other commentators have seen the influence of Eurocult horror directors such as Mario Bava on Tsui’s film. Still others have seen the influence of film noir, but while it shares the murder mystery aspect of some noir, the chiaroscuro and low-key lighting associated with film noir are just as strongly associated with horror films.
Many commentators argue that the film is innovative in the way that it sets up its dreamlike mystery, but becomes more generic in the battle royale finale. Certainly the use of butterflies as agents of horrific murder is weird, and Tsui emphasizes the weirdness by alternating more typical sunny nature shots of beautiful butterflies fluttering around flowers with dark, dread-infused shots of gory butterfly attacks. One of the ways that The Butterfly Murders feels like a traditional wuxia is in the number of female characters, including the woman warrior, Green Shadow, who is probably the most charismatic screen presence in the film. Tsui’s interest in strong female characters has been one of the constants in his career. Another thing that feels very traditional is the catastrophic ending in which nearly everybody dies, the good and the bad alike — not that anybody is really “good” in this typically ambiguous moral universe. Some characters are more evil than others, however, and I think one of the things viewers find too generic in the end is the hammy evil antics of the Thunders. It doesn’t help that the martial arts battles are probably the worst, or least interesting, that Tsui has ever brought to the big screen.
The first three films by Tsui Hark are a fascinating trio, each nihilistic, absurd, and horrific in its own way. The Butterfly Murders has less humor than the other two, and maybe that’s the main reason it felt less experimental and more traditional. The grave, tragic, heroic tone is traditional, even if that sobriety is undercut by the weirdness of the fantastical premise of killer butterflies. I can see why Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind, at least in its original form, has the highest reputation of the three, because it’s the one that bites the hand that feeds it. All three are bursting with chaotic narrative energy and visual artistry, signaling an explosive talent swiftly learning the ropes.