World cinema retro-review: Butterfly (Hu Die), 2004 (Hong Kong)

Flavia (Josie Ho) is a 30-something married teacher who teaches poetry at an all girls’ school in Hong Kong. On the surface, she seems to have the perfect life most women would want when they hit their 30s: a stable job, a stable marriage, a baby, a decent spacious house in the suburbs, a car, and enough disposable income to ensure that whatever urban ennui one feels can be staved off by the occasional weekend get-away to Macau or perhaps a holiday in the tropics. On the surface, I say, because early on in this hauntingly lyrical film, Flavia meets 23-year-old musician, Yip (real-life rocker from mainland China Yuan Tian), a slacker, by chance at the supermarket, who not only brazenly shows interest in her, but actively pursues and woos her as well. Not being your regular mainstream reactionary Hollywood movie, Flavia does not brush off nor encourage Yip’s interest, although she is clearly drawn to this very laid-back, surprisingly mature young woman, as evidenced by her still continuing to see her. We realize early on that this is not Flavia’s first foray into same-sex relationships. In fact, from the very beginning, grainy, colorful flashbacks indicate that she has actually had an intense lesbian relationship almost a decade ago, with a high school best friend with whom she was with for 3 years until she breaks it off. hu-die1These memories become more intense as Flavia’s own feelings for Yip grow, and the parallel development of each relationship mirror Flavia’s fears that the factors and circumstances that had surrounded and eventually led to the disintegration of her earlier relationship would ultimately lead to the undoing of her burgeoning present-day relationship with Yip. Flavia’s relationship with Yip thus pushes Flavia into examining her own life, her choices and eventually embarks into a journey to confront and accept her past, confront her identity and finally come to terms with her sexuality and finally, with who she really is. Having watched a number of lesbian films from my coming out days, most of them admittedly Western lesbian films, this is the first Asian lesbian film I have watched that surprised me with its scope, characterization and in-depth development and understanding of the female and lesbian psyche.

Unlike “Memento Mori”, this film has focus, a thematic design and a premise that it is determined to see right through the end. The characters are well-developed and every situation does not at all feel contrived or convoluted, but a natural  progression from the choices the main character, Flavia, chooses. The acting is not over the top and is done with restraint and caution. The contrast between the two Flavias is quite striking and makes for enjoyable watching – the younger Flavia, played with carefree exuberance by Isabella Chan and the older Flavia, played with cautious restraint by Josie Ho. The visuals complement the story as well, the camera starting to look grainy and colorful and very energetic, when Flavia sees Yip or when she recalls her past relationship with Jin (Joman Chiang) and contrasts nicely with the standard, steady, almost still-life shots shown when Flavia is with her husband, or in her house or just whenever she is away from Yip (or her past girlfriend). The storytelling flits quite like a butterfly from real-time to the past, and although it gets confusing sometimes, the story is quite compelling enough for one to understand Flavia’s motivations and choices and why she is quite torn between living the familiar socially accepted good hetero-normal life with her husband and child, and being with Yip. hudie-dvd-001 As with other artsy Asian films – linear storytelling is not used here and that is alright.  There is an interesting sub-plot about Flavia’s suicidal mother, to whom Flavia, being a Chinese daughter, is obligated to, which provides the explanation for her torn feelings, and another sub-plot about her lesbian students, who were separated from each other when their parents found out about their relationship, another indication of why Flavia is afraid to come out herself. Wrapping it all up is the Tianmen Square tragedy, which is central to Flavia and her generation’s coming-of-age when they were younger. Overall, I found it a good film. It is one of the first to discuss lesbianism as something that does not exist in a vacuum, but exists alongside other socio-cultural issues as well, issues of freedom, acceptance, personal fulfillment and so on.

This film is another indication of the emergence of a new breed of Chinese filmmakers, now referred to as the Sixth Generation, which marks the rise of the amateur filmmaker, forced to emerge because of censorship and more available and cheaper forms of filmmaking that make it possible for guerilla filmmaking to be made.

I like this movie for another thing as well: it introduced me to an Icelandic psychedelic band, whose music figures prominently in this film, Mum. At first, when the opening credits began, I thought the music playing was an indigenous  form of Chinese music, laying the mood and the sense of foreboding, interspersed with the modern Chinese poems Flavia is reading to her class, but further research revealed to me that it was Mum and I would recognize two more songs from them in the film. My favorite right now is “Green Grass of Tunnel” and I loved it so much I’d like to share it to anyone looking for some interesting respite from mainstream music.

There are so many things to like with this film. Western film reviewers had mixed reviews about this film, but one has to be Asian, I guess, to understand the context of this film.

One thought on “World cinema retro-review: Butterfly (Hu Die), 2004 (Hong Kong)

  1. I also loved this movie! the film work is just beautiful and the movie itself gives such a great perspective into the lives of the characters. I’m no film critic, and i’m not asian, but i definitely see the beauty of this film! I’m also very interested to know what kind of film was used to shoot those small scenes, do you know how i might find that out? also thanks for the heads up on that swedish artist ❤

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