hu die (butterfly)
Film, 2004, 4 stars
Written and Directed: Yan Yan Mak
Director Yan Yan Mak is trying to say an awful lot here in a short amount of time. Not that over two hours can be considered "short" in terms of running time, but considering that there are at least four separate stories being interwoven within this narrative covering a timespan of 15 years, the two hours seem jam packed. Not all of it is content that we really need, but all of it does serve a purpose.
Flavia is thirty, seemingly happily married to Ming, with a young daughter named Ting Ting. Flavia tells us flippantly that she went from high school to University to teaching, never really leaving school. As the story progresses, we find that this simplistic overview of Flavia's life leaves a lot out. In fact, she's repressing long-held desires, and something will happen to force her out of her comfortable, but meaningless existence.
In a chance encounter, Flavia meets Yip, and despite the difference in their ages (Yip at first claims to be 18, then admits she is 23) the attraction between them is immediate. Flavia denies her feelings at first, forcing Yip to do all the chasing. Then, in what should be happy moment of surrender, Flavia begins to remember why she ran away from her feelings for women in the first place.
Told in flashback with a dreamy, washed out effect, Flavia recalls the time she spent with her first lover, Jin. Despite being from the past the tale being told feels so immediate, which is fitting considering the force with which the memories are imposing themselves upon her now Flavia is letting herself remember.
The two girls meet in high school, have a passionate romance, and move in together when they go to University. Jin becomes politically active, (Yan Yan Mak cleverly dates the flashbacks by placing Jin in the chaos surrounding the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989) and gradually loses focus about who she is. At the same time, Flavia's mother finds out about the romance and demands for it to end.
Flavia eventually gives up Jin for the sake of her family. All these revelations are told in short snippets. By the time you find out why Flavia feels so guilty about her desires, we are well into the final third of the film.
Meanwhile, two of Flavia’s female students go missing one day and it is revealed that they ran away because their parents found out about their relationship. One of them is being shipped off to Canada to live with an older sibling. Once found, the girls beg Flavia for money to help them run away, but sensibly she refuses.
I'm not certain why it would be Flavia of all the teachers the girls would run to. It is not public knowledge that she had a similar affair in her youth. It seems like one of those cinematic circumstances that we are simply asked to accept, though the introduction of the students was just one storyline too many for a film already overloaded with plot.
Flavia also finds out that her parents are getting divorced. It's the final straw really. Why should she stick around in a marriage of lies when even that is no guarantee of longevity and happiness? With her memories haunting her, she runs back to Yip.
Yip has turned her life around, hoping that when Flavia comes back they could have a life together. She has picked up the threads of her former career as a singer (and truly, she isn't bad at it) and found a cheap but cosy house to live in. She's just waiting. As she says, she's patient; she knows she loves women and she knows she wants Flavia. She's willing to hang around as long as it takes Flavia to figure out the truth.
It is this transformation, Flavia's emergence from the cocoon of heterosexual life, that gives "Butterfly" its title. As Yip says, Flavia was born to fly - she just cut off her own wings early in life to suit the wishes of everyone else.
Jin went wandering the world, eventually returning to Macau to become a buddhist nun. This decision finally gives her peace (and I think these travels would make a fabulous sequel), and she urges Flavia to finally find her own peace at any cost.
The only real criticism you can make of this film is that in trying to fill Flavia's life with richness and detail, Yan Yan Mak tries to do too much. She introduces too many plotlines and characters so there are loose ends everywhere. It is all about Flavia and her journey, but we begin to care for the characters around her, and it is a shame their stories fall by the wayside in order to follow Flavia's choices.
I wanted to know more about Jin's political anguish and the strong, wilful girl who catches her eye all-too-briefly. I wanted to know what happened to Flavia's students. I wanted to know how Ming and Flavia finally resolved the custody of Ting Ting.
Also, and this could simply be a cultural thing, the sex scenes between Flavia and Jin, and then between Flavia and Yip, seem oddly restrained. They are explicit, sexy scenes, with little restraint put on how much is shown. Just for some reason the kissing itself seems awkward, like the actresses were barely touching lips.
In general though I was riveted to Flavia's story, and felt her despair. Josie Ho is a wonderful talent, as is Joman Chiang, the young Jin, who played her small but vital role with a smouldering glare and disdainful sneer, covering a deeper confusion. The cinematography is lush and distinctive.
As Flavia finally sits in the dark watching home movies of her past with a smile rather than tears, she has come a long way. It is a journey that so many queer people face, and going on this journey along with these characters is a joy you shouldn't miss.
The entire film is available with English subs on YouTube.