Butterfly


Is it too late for me to become a lesbian? Maybe, but after watching this movie I want to join the club and pay my dues. I certainly like women so I figure that I am half way there. This film depicts two lesbian relationships that are so tender and passionate that it feels like melting in butterscotch taffy. The sex is not graphic but it is plentiful and heated. I hadn’t really thought about it before but lesbians have absolutely no physical limitations on the amount of sex they can have. They can go forever. The conventional thinking has always been that men like sex a lot more than women and so I always assumed that two women together would be like sitting through an Ingmar Bergman film full of snowy empty landscapes. But maybe that’s just sex with men – in this film they generate enough energy to light a small town. So perhaps for me it’s a reach, but for any women readers who stumble across this review I suggest you watch this film and then send your boyfriend/husband a foreclosure notice.
Hong Kong cinema in general has not been kind in their portrayal of homosexuality as it is almost always a target of parody or ridicule (with the exception of Stanley Kwan of course). It often feels like they are thirty years behind much of the rest of the world in this regard, but times are changing slowly and a new generation of directors are approaching this subject with a much more serious and sensitive bent. Female director Mak Yan-Yan (who previously made the very different GeGe in 2001) makes one of the strongest pro-statements about homosexuality and simply being who you want to be ever in Hong Kong film. In other words, this won’t be playing at the Bush White House any time soon. What is also rewarding about the film is that unlike many other films dealing with this subject matter the gay characters are very normal and loving – no self-loathing or self-destructive impulses – just two people who find their need and love for each other outweighing everything else. That doesn’t mean there are no dramatics – one of the women is married and this carries with it all the weight of family and guilt on her slender shoulders that any infidelity would create.
Flavia (Josie Ho) is a contentedly thirty year old married woman and teacher with a caring husband (Eric Kot) and a young baby, but a chance encounter in a food store with a young woman named Yip (Tian Yuan) from the Mainland brings back long discarded memories and yearnings that she had kept hidden for many years. Yip is open about her sexuality and her energy and lust for life begins to push Flavia out of her easy complacency into territory that frightens her and tempts her at the same time. She wants to stay away, but simply can’t. Her memories come flooding back of her first love affair when she was a schoolgirl (played by Isabel Chan) and becomes friends and then lovers with another schoolgirl, Jia (Joman Chiang).
This affair went on for three years – with Tiananmen and the fight for political rights in Hong Kong as a backdrop to their affair – until Flavia is forced by her parents (Kenneth Tsang as the father) to break up. When Flavia later reconsiders this decision, she learns that Jia has become a nun in Macau and is lost to her forever. Ten years later she has to decide again whether to go with her true feelings towards another woman or stay with her husband and child. There are no easy answers and no one here is good or bad – just human. The school romance plays out in innocent hues, in which no one could be hurt by their love, but adulthood is another matter and whatever decision Flavia reaches will have painful ramifications for others.
The film is cinematically well shot – very clean and distinct with some eye-pleasing framing and colors. The director also frequently switches the filter to give the film an edgy look and to give the flashbacks a distinct warmth. Both the past and present threads could almost play out on their own, but mixing them as Mak Yan Yan does give both an added layer of meaning. The film at over two hours does begin to drag in parts and certain side stories – two other schoolgirls who love each other and the friction between Flavia’s mother and father could have been dropped. There are some small wonderful scenes – Ji staring at the Tiananmen crackdown on television and simply crying was powerful for its sense of loss that merged into her own life, Eric Kot bewildered, angry and frustrated at his inability to stop what is happening and yet still so in love with his wife saying “do what you want, just don’t leave me” or the older Jia (Stephanie Che) telling Flavia who needs to exorcise the ghosts from her past not to come back – calmly telling Flavia that she has found her inner peace and is right where she belongs.
Mak mixes veteran actors like Ho, Tsang, Kot, Che with two new and terrific actresses, Tian Yuan and Joman Chiang, and the results are excellent. Most of us still identify Ho with her role as an assassin in the 1999 “Purple Storm” in 1999 but since then she has primarily had cameos in bigger films or starring roles in smaller ones and shown a willingness to take on off-beat roles such as the fellatio loving prostitute in “Naked Ambition” and this film. She has rarely played straight romances – perhaps not being classically beautiful or adorably cute keeps her off that list – but she is wonderfully soft, sexy and mature here. It is a surprise that she didn’t get a Best Actress nomination.
Tian Yuan in fact did get a nomination for Best New Performer and it is well deserved. She radiates youthful vibrancy and sexuality and her stares of hunger at Josie are wrenching. She is a singer and this is her first film and the songs on the soundtrack are hers. Doesn’t it seem most of the better new actresses are coming from the Mainland these days? Mak complains in an interview that she feels badly that she wasn’t able to capture Tian's true beauty on the screen, but what she does capture is plenty. Throw in a solid job from Eric and good performances from both Isabel Chan – who until this had been in fairly lightweight fluffy roles such as "Looking for Mr. Perfect" (the roommate) and "Sex and the Beauties" – and Joman Chiang as the tough but vulnerable Ji.

My rating for this film: 7.0