Wu Die (Butterfly)

2004

Written and Directed: Yan Yan Mak

Despite the fact that the main storyline eventually boils down to something quite simple, 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 for your average film, 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 particular purpose.

Flavia is a thirty-year-old woman 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, not even for a little while. But as the story progresses, we find out that this simplistic overview of Flavia's life leaves a lot out in terms of where she has been emotionally. 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 really remember why she ran away from her feelings for women in the first place.

Told in flashback, with a dreamy, washed out effect so that it is impossible to mistake when we are in the present and when we are in the past, Flavia recalls the time she spent with her first lover, Jin. Despite being a story from the past the tale being told feels so immediate, which is fitting considering the force with which the memories are imposing themselves upon Flavia now that she is letting herself remember.

The two girls meet in high school, form a passionate first romance and move in together when they go to University. Jin becomes active in human rights demonstrations (Yan Yan Mak cleverly dates the flashbacks by having Jin involved in the demonstrations surrounding the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989) and gradually loses focus about who she is, and perhaps she is a little attracted to another woman who is also involved in the protests. At this same time, Flavia's mother unexpectedly finds out about the romance and demands for it to end. Flavia eventually gives up Jin for the sake of her family. All of these revelations are told in short snippets. By the time you find out why Flavia feels so guilty about it all, we are well and truly into the final third of the film.

Meanwhile, Yan Yan Mak introduces more conflict into Flavia's life. Two of her young, 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 at the school the girls would run to. It certainly is not public knowledge that she had a similar affair in her own youth. It seems like one of those cinematic circumstances that we are simply asked to accept, though I thought that the introduction of the students and their storyline 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 in life? With her memories of the past haunting her, she runs back to Yip.

Yip has turned her life around, hoping that when Flavia comes back to her that they could have a life together. She has picked up the threads of her former career as a bar 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's not going to be overcome with guilt or try to kill herself. 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 and to act on it, to finally leave her husband.

It is this transformation, Flavia's emergence from the coccoon 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. After she cut Jin out of her life, Jin went wandering the world, eventually returning to Macau to become a buddhist nun. This decision is the thing that finally gives her peace (and the description of her travels I think would make a fabulous sequel to this film), and she urges Flavia to finally find her own peace, in any way she possibly can.

Of course, this decision isn't likely to make her family much happier today than it did fifteen years ago, particularly her husband. This section of the film, as she begins to awaken to her own sexual possibilities, reminds me distinctly of the process Camille goes through in When Night is Falling. Indeed, there are two scenes in Wu Die that seemed to be lifted directly from Rozema's lesbian classic, perhaps a small homage on the part of Yan Yan Mak to a filmmaker who revels similarly in exquisite attention to detail. Ming, Flavia's husband, even reacts in a similar way to Martin in that film, by confronting Flavia's lover, making sure she knows his name, his face. Making sure that she knows exactly who is being hurt by what is happening. But his pride cannot stand in the way of the truth and he knows it.

I think 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 that stand out so that in the end there seems to be loose ends hanging everywhere. It is all about Flavia and her journey towards personal freedom, but we begin to care for the characters around her, and when their stories fall by the wayside in order to follow Flavia's choices, it seems like such a pity. 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 and her parents. 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 when it comes time for the women to kiss. They are explicit, sexy scenes, with little restraint put on how much is shown. Just for some reason the kissing scenes seemed awkward, like the actresses were barely touching lips, or kissing the sides of each other's mouths instead of just taking each other with real passion. It was odd, and distracting.

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 by Charlie Lam is beautiful and he deserves most of the credit for helping the film's flashback narrative structure to work visually as well as it does.

Ultimately the story does come down to a simple coming out story, but the way Flavia gets there is so burdened that to get to the truth we must see the consequences of her self-deception. We meet the people who fall by the wayside and become collateral in her search for identity. This depth lifts the film far above other films with similar ideas.

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 an immense journey that many lesbians face, and going on this particular journey along with these characters is a joy you shouldn't miss.

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