Issue #258            HOME          E-mail:        BACK ISSUES                April 4th, 2005

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The Butterfly Murders
(1979; Seasonal Film Corporation)

Cantonese: Dip bin
Mandarin: Die bian
English: Butterfly Transformation


RATING: 7/10


Tsui Hark's feature directorial debut is a most unusual effort – imagine a traditional swordplay adventure re-structured like a murder mystery and spiced with horror elements from Alfred Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963). The storyline tells of how the noble Shum family was beset by a most unusual threat: clouds of bloodsucking butterflies, which may be the result of a curse. Travelling writer/adventurer Fong (Lau Siu-ming), respected master Tien Fung (Wong Shu-tong, who also did double duty as the film’s action choreographer), and enthusiastic martial maiden Green Shadow (Michelle Mai Suet) arrive at the family's castle and must soon take shelter with them in the catacombs, when the insects begin their attacks anew. During a period of calm, the master instructs his servants to cover the central building with giant nets, keeping the butterflies out but, just as effectively, sealing the humans inside. In spite of this precaution, the creatures invade the castle through air ducts, and kill the master in his study. As per instructions in the man's will, a trio of skilled killers, called "The Thunders," are summoned but their assistance seems dubious, particularly as their arrival coincides with that of a black armor-clad assassin, who is stalking the castle corridors.

Wong Shu-tong Michelle Mai Lau Siu-ming

Tsui was hired to direct THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS on the basis of THE GOLD DAGGER ROMANCE, his television miniseries adaptation of Gu Long's celebrated martial arts novel. We have not viewed that production, but one can speculate that it engendered the devices that Tsui utilizes throughout BUTTERFLY: quick cuts, shock edits, and layered sound (fairly unremarkable, perhaps, by Western standards, but more detailed and intriguing than most HK productions from this period). Beautifully shot and lit, the film's atmosphere is palpable and foreboding even before the principles arrive at Shum Castle. Lau’s wandering scholar records history in his memoirs, while also shaping it, but is not a martial artist. Instead, he fulfils the role of detective, making him a fairly unique protagonist in the wuxia pian (martial chivalry) genre. By contrast, the abilities of Michelle Mai's sprightly Green Shadow (who must protect the defenceless Fong at one point) provide a preview of the high-flying, wire-enhanced acrobatics that would dominate Tsui's later period fantasies. The story's resolution is as offbeat as the events leading up to it, but still quite satisfying. Chang Kuo-chu, Eddy Ko Hung, Tino Wong Cheung, Hsia Guang-li, and Jo Jo Chan Kei-kei also appear.

Eddy Ko Hsia Guang-li An example of the color layer disintegration.


In years past, the only video edition of the film English speakers could view with any degree of comfort was the relatively scarce Far East Music laserdisc (88:42), which featured a so-so cropboxed 1.86:1 transfer of a worn 35mm theatrical print...and a commercial for an amusement park at the end of side 1! Normally, an anamorphic DVD transfer would make such a dated rendering obsolete, but THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS is a dispiriting example of what happens to movies owned by companies uninterested in properly preserving them. The DVD presents the film at its intended 2.35:1 dimensions and features much better detail and more accurate hues. Alas, despite being only 25 years old, the negative has suffered chemical deterioration in the color layers, resulting in some very distracting anomalies. Some shots look fine, while others have a green tinge. Worst of all, however, is the severe staining. The occasional black stains are not too distracting, but the majority are yellow (or green, depending on the background hue onscreen) and quite prominent. Some shots have also been slightly slowed down to mask missing frames and this has the adverse effect of making these ungodly splotches appear onscreen longer. Some brief bits of footage are missing, but a short exterior sequence is also AWOL from the laserdisc print, so it is not definitive either. The 35mm print used here is also marred by a handful of stains, indicating that it was likely derived from the same source and the problem has gotten much worse over time. Contrasts on the DVD are also weak, with several low light sequences brightened by the telecine operator to the point that there is no true black left in the image (most of these bits are overly murky on the LD, so it offers no improvement).

In addition, the DVD fades out as soon as the characters for "The End" appear, cutting short the film’s theme song. Both the Cantonese and Mandarin mono tracks are noticeably rundown, with the latter in somewhat better condition. The new English subs are more legible than before, and now cover the aforementioned composition when it plays under the opening credits, but the older version has a far more literate translation. The Cantonese theatrical trailer (a bit worse for wear but stain-free) and Mei Ah’s usual "Data Bank" feature (which simply replicates information found on both the keep case and outer sleeve) are the only bonus materials.

This DVD is available at:

Images in this review courtesy of courtesy Mei Ah Entertainment. To read captions, hover mouse over image.

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Copyright © John Charles 2000 - 2005. All Rights Reserved.

DVD Specifications

  • Hong Kong Release
  • NTSC Region 0
  • Mei Ah Entertainment #DVD-653
  • Dolby Digital 2.0
  • Post-synced Cantonese and Mandarin Language
  • Subtitles (Optional): English, Traditional & Simplified Chinese
  • 8 Chapters
  • 16:9 Enhanced (2.35:1)
  • 88 Minutes

Ratings & Consumer Information

  • Hong Kong: OAT I
  • Ontario: R
  • Quebec: G
  • Singapore: NC16
  • Contains moderate violence


  • 10 A Masterpiece
  • 9 Excellent
  • 8 Highly Recommended
  • 7 Very Good
  • 6 Recommended
  • 5 Marginal Recommendation
  • 4 Not Recommended
  • 3 Poor
  • 2 Definitely Not Recommended
  • 1 Dreadful