As you watch ''Purple Butterfly," questions may flit lepidopterally across your dazed mind: What is going on here? Didn't I see this character get killed several scenes ago? Is Ziyi Zhang, the beloved steel pixie of ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and ''House of Flying Daggers," really that wooden an actress or are there no bad performers, only bad parts? Should I have stayed home and watched ''Lost" instead?
And the big one: Why has writer-director Lou Ye filmed an epic, incident-packed World War II melodrama as if it were one of Wong Kar-Wai's drifty romantic meditations? There are two movies battling for supremacy in ''Butterfly," and both lose. As does the audience.
The film opens in Manchuria in 1928, a pressure cooker of Japanese encroachment and Chinese resentment. Cynthia (Zhang) is in the midst of a decorously photographed cross-cultural romance with Itami (Toru Nakamura) when he is called back to Japan for military service. Cynthia returns from seeing off her lover in time to witness the murder of her activist brother at the hands of a Japanese suicide bomber, and the camera settles on her screaming face for a jump-cutting eternity. It's a visual device that will recur throughout the film, and there are certainly enough bodies to go around.
Then, zip, we're in Shanghai, it's 1931, and the Japanese have invaded. Cynthia, now called Ding Hui, is part of an underground resistance network known as Purple Butterfly. The group hopes to assassinate the head of the enemy's secret service, Yamamoto (Kin Ei), whose new assistant has just arrived from Japan and who is -- surprise -- Itami.
Cut to an earnest young Chinese man named Szeto (Ye Liu), who arrives in Shanghai to meet his phone operator girlfriend Yi-ling (played by the lovely and onomatopoetically named Bingbing Li). Mistaken for a Purple Butterfly hit man, Szeto causes all hell to break loose at the train station and, after tragic results, is forced to throw his lot in with the underground. Meanwhile, Ding Hui is assigned the task of seducing her ex-lover to his doom and she's not happy about it.
Things only get murkier from here, because director Ye is more interested in intense emotional states and deluxe visuals than in grounding his story in the necessary who, why, and where. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- as noted, Wong Kar-Wai has made a brilliant career out of the beautifully filmed existential gesture -- but if you're going to pull an audience into the deep end, it helps if they know what the pool looks like.
Take that train station sequence. The first scene in which the major strands of the story line come together, it's an overdirected donnybrook of angles and edits in which a viewer has no idea who half these people are or why they're shooting at one another. Nor do we ever really find out, so enamored is Ye of ''21 Grams"-style time shifts, hectic lap dissolves, close-ups that close out meaning, and the delicate latticework patterns of monsoon rain on a bedroom window.
This is what used to be called white-elephant art, tasteful and lumbering, but it carries a veneer of cutting-edge technique that may fool impressionable moviegoers. That is, if the end-credits atrocity footage of the 1938 Rape of Nanking -- absurdly gratuitous in this context -- doesn't dampen their enthusiasm.
The performances, including Zhang's, seem cowed by the razzle-dazzle. A member of China's ''Sixth Generation" group of filmmakers, Ye made the well-regarded (and more honestly plotless) ''Suzhou River" (2000), but with ''Purple Butterfly," he bites off substantially more than he can chew. Among his many cinematic influences here is ''Casablanca," but the problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this film's crazy mise-en-scene.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.