Travel writer turned master sleuth Scholar Fong (Lau Siu-Ming) is among a group of guests at Shum Castle when the grounds are swarmed by deadly killer butterflies! This unlikely turn of events climaxes with the beautiful but malevolent bugs mauling to death castle host Lord Shum (Chang Kuo-Chu), right in front of his horrified wife (JoJo Chan Kei-Kei). Putting his detective skills to good use, Scholar Fong teams with plucky martial arts maiden Green Shadow (Michelle Mei Suet) and the sternly stoic Boss (Wong Shu-Tong) of the Tien Lung kung fu clan to learn what the hell is going on. Further complicating an already mind-boggling mystery a murderous maniac in black armour stalks the castle grounds bumping off anyone that crosses his path.
Hired on the strength of his groundbreaking Hong Kong television serial The Gold Dagger Romance, visionary filmmaker Tsui Hark made his directorial debut with The Butterfly Murders. Exquisitely shot by veteran D.P. Fan Chi-Yu (making alternately ominous and magical use of shadows and light that dance across castle walls and Michelle Mei Suet's lovely face), this surreal, deliberately esoteric mystery thriller found little favour with local audiences at the time. Yet it set a path for Hark to almost single-handedly revolutionize the Hong Kong film industry throughout the Eighties and beyond and has since been critically re-evaluated as one of the finest Chinese films ever made. In recent times genre fans have likened Butterfly Murders to an Italian giallo horror-thriller transplanted to a period martial arts setting. No doubt on the strength of its ominous atmosphere and stylish murder set-pieces involving a black-masked killer. However, Hark's film has arguably more in common with director Chu Yuan's then-contemporaneous run of Gu Long-scripted wu xia mysteries over at rival studio Shaw Brothers: e.g. Web of Death (1976) (wherein instead of butterflies the murderous insect is a magical death-ray spewing spider), Clans of Intrigue (1977), Bat without Wings (1980), etc.
Here however Hark modernizes the form. Instead of Chu Yuan’s studio-bound artifice he imbues real life locations with a no-less eerie and otherworldly atmosphere; something that lends creepy verisimilitude and no small amount of poetry to the potentially campy concept of bloodthirsty butterflies. The film’s sweeping visuals, an eccentric but effective melange of David Lean's sweeping vistas and the existential dreamscapes of Andrei Tarkovsky (both strong influences on the Vietnamese-born, Texas film schooled Hark), create a strange psychological space, often shot by candlelight a la Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon (1975). Hark also infuses the dense wu xia back-story with what became his trademark acidic socio-political commentary, drawing savage parallels between feuding clans and contemporary social division and breaking several genre rules along the way. Those who find the plots in Chu Yuan films tough to follow may struggle similarly here. In typical wu xia fashion the plot incorporates multiple factions and characters with conflicting motives while a narrator barely makes sense of it all. Had this been a Chang Cheh film the protagonist would no doubt be the stoic macho clan chief essayed by Wong Shu-Tong, who also choreographed the action scenes. Instead Hark contrasts the implacable, belligerent tough guy with Lau Siu-Ming's modest, contemplative, cerebral and courteous detective. Established as an outsider who, unusually for this genre, possesses no martial arts skills, the hero actually sits out the entire third act leaving the antagonists to scrap their way to a bitterly ironic finale.
Remarkably though Hark ably succeeds in keeping the mystery compelling, in part by way of ominous atmosphere and low-key cinematic virtuosity (the film established his then innovative use of machinegun edits, whirling camera moves and layered sound), but also his underrated facility with lively character interplay. Co-stars Lau Siu-Ming and Michelle Mei Suet, future star of Shaw Brothers' delightfully surreal kung fu comedy: Ambitious Kung Fu Girl (1981) and the first of Hark's rich future legacy of appealing, proactive heroines, strike up an engaging dynamic (he handles the sleuthing, but she's got the moves). Until a literally last second plot twist wraps things up on a curiously perverse and jarring note, albeit one that still feels thematically apt.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.