Just before the New Era, two devastating wars took place in the Martial World. In the first, in the Dim Cheong Mountains, thirty thousand were killed. The second lasted fourteen days and one hundred thousand died. The world entered the Quiet Period. This lasted over thirty years. It seemed a time of truce but unrest seethed below the surface. Then, there emerged 72 new forces called the 72 Trails of Smoke, heralding the dawn of the New Era. In these war-torn years, a scholar unskilled in martial arts travelled all over China recording these events and selling them to make a living. His name was Fong. In this Martial World he was an observer. But, inevitably, he became totally involved. In the 24th year of the New Era he met up with Tien Fung, leader of the Ten Coloured Flag Section of the 72 Trails of Smoke and Green Shadow, a female mercenary. The three head for the castle they believed held the key to the secret surrounding a number of incredible and fatal attacks by swarms of killer butterflies.
This is the first feature from Hong Kong new wave director Tsui Hark who subsequently went on to direct and produce many genre features, including the much-acclaimed historical epic Once Upon A Time In China. Making the most of a modest budget, Hark takes the viewer on a journey with the historian character Fong through the spartan landscape of ancient China. Narration throughout by the character makes following the events a little easier than may otherwise have been expected; having said that, plot development does become confusing at times due to the inclusion of much superfluous background detail (the paragraph above is pretty much verbatim from the opening narration of the film). The Butterfly Murders has a distinct western feel to it. Western in the sense of genre, not geography. The desert settings and lone, fort-like castles add to this impression.
When the three leads reach the castle, events take a more supernatural turn as the action shifts to a labyrinth of tunnels below the surface. It appears that a ghost is responsible for the mysterious butterfly attacks. The father of the castle's current occupant, who died from the bite of a poisonous butterfly ten years before, seems the source of the spirit. In (what I found to be a confusing) final twenty minutes, three other notorious killers confront our heroes in a destructive battle, the new arrivals defending the spirit, the others attempting to put a stop to it. There are few action scenes as the story is told, for the most part, through dialogue. It is very much a first feature but there are moments of good composition which help lift the sometimes boggy plot. Although a nice change from American or European fantasy, it's hardly essential. Viewers may find greater reward in some of Hark's later work.