1971-1980Film NoirHark TsuiHong KongMystery

Hark Tsui – Die bian aka The Butterfly Murders (1979)

From “HK New Wave Cinema”

Against Tradition, Against the System, Against Society

After Golden Blade Sentimental Swordsman, Tsui joined the film industry. His debut
work was The Butterfly Murders (1979). Set in Shen’s castle, the plot focuses on an
investigation of the ‘butterfly killers’, who have committed a string of murders. Valiant
men from various places have also been killing each other. A writer-reporter, Fang
Hongye, is writing about all of these incidents to anthologize them in a book entitled
Diary of Hongye. In the process, Fang discovers that all of the killings have been
initiated by the master of the castle, as part of his plan to become the king of wulin
(the martial arts world). Other people, one by one, are murdered and the sole survivor
is Fang. This movie marked the beginning of the director’s trial use of sci-fi special
effects as a substitute for the special effects seen in traditional martial arts movies. The
intention behind this work was to blend the dichotomies of tradition and modernity,
myth and science, and the Orient and the Occident (including Japan).

These oppositions, however, are mixed not in an organic but in a connotative manner,
ultimately subverting myths through science. The narrative eschews magic devices of
the traditional martial arts world, such as flashes of light, flying swords, thunder coming
from the palm of a hand, flying through the air and digging through the ground. It
makes use of certain substitutes, for instance, a slingshot arrow and string-and-hook
instead of qinggong [the ability to move lightly and swiftly], gunpowder instead of
secret weapons, tin and lead amour instead of a golden bell cover/iron-cloth garment.
Unfortunately, this approach of trying to find scientific explanations greatly neglects
the unlimited potential of the human imagination. This neglect is a big fault,
particularly in the cinematic world where imagination is a source of creativity and is a
criterion. In addition, the metaphysical arts and extraordinary powers of the Orient
contain their own spectacular attributes, which are well suited to the exercising of the

The martial arts genre with special effects has an illustrious history. It is the successor
of a Shanghai feature, Torching the Red Lotus Temple,7 which already incorporated the
technology to show light and force emanating from swords, palm thunder, people flying through the air and so forth. This movie was so well received that a total of
eighteen episodes were produced. At the peak of its popularity in 1931, the drama was
suddenly banned by the Film Inspection Committee of the National Government.8 This
prohibition also put to an end the making of martial arts films in mainland China.
However, the Japanese occupation and the civil war led a number of pioneers of the
martial arts movies, such as Wang Yuanlong, Hong Zhonghao, Ren Pengnian, Wu
Lizhu (actress), Lu Jiping (set designer), to migrate to Hong Kong, thus allowing the
genre to live on.

The 1950s and 1960s were the golden decades of Hong Kong martial arts movies.
Films such as Marvelous Gallants of the Jianghu and Temple of the Red Lotus I and II
were made in 1956 and Torching the Red Lotus Temple I and II were made in 1963. In
the 1960s, over thirty such films were made,9 of which The Secret Book (1960),
Buddha’s Palm (1964) and Holy Flame of the Martial World* were the most memorable. In that period, the technology that was adopted in the martial arts movies of that decade bears reference to certain foreign pictures such as Godzilla, King Kong and others. More complex animation, optical effects and archetypes came into use.
Added to this the locally created yinbogong (sound-wave martial arts) and other
technologies, these films were so spectacular that the audience was amazed. The final
episode of The Secret Book even earned 280,000 Hong Kong dollars in box office
revenues, which broke the record for local and foreign films in the past ten years.10
The 1970s were basically dominated by the kung fu genre, in which practical fights and
moves were emphasized. However, King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn, A Touch of Zen and
some other movies made use of optical effects and animation.11 Tsui took these
traditional special effects and updated them into modern, sci-fi type effects. Besides
being a pioneer, Tsui has also taken on the role of advocate, which has bolstered his
reputation as one of the most prominent auteur of ‘special effects’ movies.

Without doubt, Tsui’s The Butterfly Murders is a breathtaking work that contains
extraordinary characters, spectacular images and peculiar moods. However, he was
overambitious and tried to raise too many questions in this film. The content was
confusing and appeared to beyond the director’s control. Moreover, this film
incorporates too many pastiches from other movies, namely Yatsuhaka Mura from
Japan, The Birds by Hitchcock and robot figures from Star Wars. In the process of
appropriation, the director did not sufficiently digest the elements and make them part
of his own. The result was a film with a disorganized structure and confusing logic. Little
wonder that the editor of the French periodical Cahier de Cinema wrote, ‘The plot is so
disorganized that, soon after the beginning, I was already unable to follow the movie.’12
If even a film professional was bewildered, it is not surprising if the general audience
was as well. However, this work certainly tried to challenge traditional myths and
attempted to be ‘different’. While the movie may perhaps be overly exaggerated or
perhaps ‘be stuck at the stage of handicraft techniques,’13 the film-maker did indeed
take a significant step in the direction of reforming martial arts movies.

699MB | 1:28:37 | 640×272 | avi


Subtitles:English soft

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