Film Review: Butterfly (2004, Hong Kong) – 蝴蝶 /Hu Die/
Hu Die – by Hong Kong film director Yan Yan Mak – follows the story of Flavia, a thirty-something school teacher married to Ming, the gentle and good natured father of their child Ting Ting and has what appears to be a stable and successful career and married life.
However, a chance meeting with Xiao Ye, a beautiful young singer – at the supermarket of all places (more on this later) – reawakens forgotten memories of a bittersweet past and her stable life starts to crumble away, revealing something altogether different underneath.
As the film progresses, the deeply buried memories of her profound relationship with highschool girlfriend Jin are forced more and more powerfully to the surface by the catalyst of the film, Xiao Ye and reawaken in her the feelings she had successfully suppressed since getting married.
As the films emotional tension ramps up, the past and present begin to mingle together in what is an initially confusing, yet deeply touching mosaic of flashbacks interspersed with the present and linked by Xiao Ye or other emotional triggers.
From the begining to the end of the film, the story follows Flavia’s life which is unwrapped one delicate titbit at a time, gradually revealing more and more of the key periods and events in her life as she attempts to come to terms with her past and find peace in the present.
I’d like to disclaim the highly unlikely and uncharacteristically contrived way the two women meet. It just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the film at all. Luckily, that’s the only part of the film that ever drops below zero.
The first thing that struck me about the movie was the atmosphere that pervades every scene of the movie.
There’s a palpable and delicious sense of nostalgia to the shots of her past that makes one feel as if one had shared the experience with her. I have been to several of the locations where this film was shot and I actually found myself feeling a little homesick.
Then there’s the relatively silent, slow paced scenes of her life at work and at home in the present, shot in faded colours shadowy depths and glaring, high contrast. Like the world when you have a dull headache, these parts are tense and brooding.
Finally, there’s the scenes when Flavia is with Xiao Ye, uptempo, vibrant, emotional and moving scenes where the pace picks up, the camera is constantly in motion and closeups of small details abound.
Butterfly is, without doubt more artistic and less mainstream movie that Saving Face or Red Doors and for that, will find its audience more restricted than those two movies. The focus is firmly on the ultraspecific details of Flavia’s past and her current relationships with Xiao Ye, Ming and her parents. In that sense, this is a very personal film about individual choice, rather than a film that makes broad sweeping and easily categorised statements about lesbianism.
There is no patronising, clear cut premise – as there often is in other films – where the main character is a perfect, model citizen who “just happens to be lesbian” and that all their problems occur because others don’t accept them.
Flavia, for example is stuck in the moral quagmire of being married with a child and yet feeling herself succumb to the temptations of her “true self” coming through. The film does not take the high road and try to justify her decisions by using lesbianism as an excuse to cheat on her partner. Instead, it shows Flavia as a normal woman rather than a hero, trying to avoid the pain and risks of loss by “testing the waters” before building the courage to make the decision that she knows she has to make, with all its ensuing fallout.
This film is strong on several levels.
Firstly is the believability of the whole tale: Besides the supermarket scene, Flavia is utterly convincing and there are no random or contrived “out of character experiences” to support the director’s pet theories. She acts and reacts in entirely believable ways, supported by the rich (and I suspect slightly autobiographical) background and the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square tragedy.
Another surprising strength comes from the way it leaves these moral questions to the viewer: One could argue that rather than being a heroine, she is no less selfish than anyone else who marries for the wrong reasons and ends up having an affair.
Indeed, the main character appears to at first use her lesbianism to justify the situation, before she is wracked with guilt and realises what she is doing to her husband, who, although being busy and sometimes distant, clearly loves her dearly, and her child who will be thrown into a chaotic future.
I have watched this film three times now, and each time my personal opinions of the characters change. Overall, this is one of the most thoughtful and personal films I have ever seen that presents a difficult topic head-on, although if you’re expecting a transposed lecture on “lesbians are like you or me, just misunderstood”, you’re going to be disappointed.
This is much more of a “bring your own morality” art flick than either Red Doors or Saving Face, forcing you to think deeply about the consequences of hasty or ill conceived actions and make a decision on whether you feel Flavia was justified in her behaviour or not.
Two big thumbs up for this one.