WTF ASIA 58: Butterfly (2004)

In anticipation of both Pride Month and the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, I present…uh…this movie.

Available online. Approximately 129 minutes.


Flavia is thirty-years-old. She teaches at a girls’ school in Hong Kong. She is married and has a one-year-old daughter. Her life is going as it is going until she meets Yip. Yip is caught eating some food in the market and Flavia covers for her, saying that they are sisters. Yip puts on this face for the market employee that implies that she is stupid, but she reveals later that she had actually been observing Flavia and figured that she would pay up. Yip is an aspiring musician, only a few years older than Flavia’s students, kind of a slacker, and apparently ran away from home years ago. She had been living with some woman named Rosa until Rosa kicked her out. Now she is living wherever. Yip figures Flavia to be a fellow lonely soul and says that she can confide in her at any time. Flavia neither brushes off nor encourages Yip’s pretty brazen advances.

Without so much as saying the words, both have pretty much figured out each other’s deal. Flavia then reveals in a somewhat cautiously roundabout way that she had a relationship with another girl when they were teenagers, but the other girl became a Buddhist nun several years ago. What Flavia does not say, and what she does not really have to say, is that she had pretty much tried to put all of that out of her mind since the breakup and has tried to live the way normal women of Hong Kong are supposed to live. A husband, a child. Yip brings back all of these memories. Memories of the only time that she knew true love…and the possibility that she might know it again.

Memories come creeping back of her as a teenager with her friend Jin on the Portuguese-controlled island of Macau during the late 80s. When Jin first kissed her and confessed her feelings for her, young Flavia went fully for her. She was carefree and gleeful whenever she was with Jin, in contrast with her rather uneasy family life. Jin was wild and rebellious, joining the Chinese pro-Democracy movement. Then, the inevitable happened. They broke up. They grew up. They grew apart. They grew out of it. Or they had at least convinced themselves that they had.

Flavia’s memories of her love for Jin become clearer and more intense as she starts developing feelings for Yip. But she has grown into a cautious and somewhat shy adult. She remembers the damage that love had caused before, when she was just a child with less to lose. Now she has a family of her own and her obligations have only multiplied. She has suffered the consequences once and now the consequences will be worse.

Yip manages to find the school where Flavia works and waits outside. She surprises Flavia with an invitation to meet her on the weekend at Rosa’s place for dinner; apparently Rosa has invited her back, at least for Yip’s birthday. Flavia is, again, cautious. She initially tries to suppress the desire to go by having sex with her husband…but then she ends up going anyways. She takes her daughter Ting Ting, perhaps to ensure that she does not do anything rash with Yip. But she ends up kissing Yip during dinner; she initiates it. They both try to play it off, which is just as well, since Rosa comes in almost immediately with a birthday present. Rosa teases Yip for, once again, going after an older woman, this time one who is married and with a kid. Yip gets Rosa to leave. Eventually, Flavia and Yip wind up together in the bathtub. Either through her own anxieties or the sound of her crying daughter, Flavia high-tails it out of there, telling Yip to forget about all of this.

Flavia tries to double down on her normal life, but her normal life is showing cracks. Two of her students go missing and eventually end up at her apartment. The father of one of them has found out about their relationship and beat her. They plead with Flavia to give them money so that they can run away together. Did they turn to her only out of desperation or did they know that she was closeted? Either way, Flavia agrees only to allow them to spend the night before she takes them back to their parents. They run away again, only to be brought back. One of the girls is taken to live in Canada and the girl who remains attempts suicide. Now, slightly different memories come to Flavia; the times when her mother got depressed, the dreams of democracy in the Mainland violently crushed. She starts to feel like this life of her was never normal, that her caution was stifling and slowly destroying her. She decides to search for Yip, and maybe find those feelings that she had not felt in a decade.

This movie is based on a Taiwanese book and, while Taiwan has its own issues with China and LGBTQ issues, some of it still applies to Hong Kong. The story is about the conflict between what people are and what society says that they are supposed to be. Both Yip and young Jin are free and without obligation, living away from their families, though maybe because they got kicked out or ran away. Flavia, on the other hand, is always tied to family, whether it be her dysfunctional parents or her husband and daughter. Family is extremely important in Chinese society. While homosexuality is sort of kind of gaining more acceptance (we shall see how things go in Taiwan), there is a sense that it is a frivolous lifestyle that has to eventually be set aside for marriage and parenthood. The adult Flavia is the result of this obligation. She is trying to be the person that she is supposed to be, and has put up a good act for years, helping to guide girls towards becoming the future women of Hong Kong. But the feelings that she had bottled up never went away and start chipping away at her life. So is this younger woman merely a means of enabling her regression into the foolish rebellious phase of her youth? Or is Yip help to reveal what Flavia always was and always will be, and that repressing that part of her would be more damaging than accepting it?

This struggle is also played out in the scenes regarding the democracy protests. Inspired by the protests in the mainland, a group of young people in Macau (along with a few older people) stage protests. The freedom-loving Jin gets swept up immediately. Flavia is intrigued, but mostly stands on the sidelines, and any possible attempts for her to get more involved are undermined by phone calls from her distraught mother. Enthusiasm for democracy turns to grief and anger when the protests in Beijing turn into a bloodbath. While this movie is not set in Beijing (or even in the Mainland), it is pretty explicit in its references to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Subsequent protests in Macau are met with suppression that is not quite as violent as in Beijing, but still inflexible. The freedom of rebellion and the rebellion for freedom is not tolerated, and those not obeying the rules of society will pay the consequences. Were they naïve for ever hoping otherwise, or should they continue to fight?

And so, here is Flavia: several years into adulthood, trying to put her past behind her and struggling to deny that that past is actually who she really is. And here is Hong Kong: several years after being handed back to what is now the Communist People’s Republic of China and wrestling with their sense autonomy. 2004 is years away from the disruptive anti-Mainland protests in Hong Kong, but even then, the identity crisis was hard to miss. Hong Kong has changed a lot a generation after the handover. How much of that change is fundamental and genuine? How much of that is imposed from above?

There are a few things in this movie that one has to accept or one will probably just get distracted. The first is that everyone can understand what Yip speaks Mandarin while everyone else speaks Cantonese and it is all fine. But this is a pretty stylized film, so if this works for Wong Kar-Wai films, it can work here. Also, there is the issue that the actresses playing Flavia as a teenager and as a 30-year-old look absolutely nothing alike, which may make initial scenes with young Flavia a little confusing. They do sound a little similar, though. There is a visual quirk, most likely done in post-production, which has some of the shots look grainy. I have no idea why this was done. Finally, there are two scenes where a song that sounds suspiciously like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is playing. While much of the soundtrack is pretty good, that song is not. Flavia once says that little Ting Ting likes listening to Nirvana, so I am guessing that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was originally supposed to play,  but that plan fell through for some reason. Whatever. I just have to tolerate it; maybe you might enjoy it more.

The actresses playing adult Flavia and teen Flavia (there are also brief scenes of Flavia as a little girl) may look nothing alike, but I can totally accept them as the same person at different points in her life. It also kind of makes sense, since they act differently. Part of that may be the consequences of growing up, but a lot of it may be wrapped up in a lie. Flavia is overly cautious and shy because she is worried about slipping up and falling back into the life that she had to leave behind. She struggles with what she thinks she is supposed to be and what she subconsciously knows she is. A part of her wants to be what she is supposed to be, if only to prevent hurting the ones whom she cares for, but she knows that that is not going to happen. A lot of this is not verbalized and her pain is internal. She suffers mostly quietly, and it is only in Yip that she finds solace.

I must warn you that this film is rather slow and quiet, with very few big moments. There is such a focus on Flavia and her crisis of conscience that other characters and their motivations may not feel fully formed. Honestly, I understand if it seems a little long and aimless, but I feel like the style works here. I found this to be a wonderful movie about what is lost to time and what never goes away.



WTF ASIA 59: Memories of Murder (South Korea: 2003, approx. 131 minutes)


Available in Canada, The United States, and maybe other places.


WTF ASIA 60:  Ramdhanu (India: 2014, approx. 134 minutes)


Available online.