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
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
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
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
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