Butterfly (2004)

Written & directed by: Yan Yan Mak
Producers: Yan Yan Mak & Jacqueline Liu
Starring: Josie Ho, Tian Yuan, Eric Kot, Isabel Chan, Joman Chiang, Kenneth Tsang, Redbean Lau & Stephanie Che

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Buy the DVD with Hopscotch CD at:

Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2005:
Best New Artist (Tian Yuan)

Nominations at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2004:
Best Adapted Screenplay (Yan Yan Mak)
Best New Performer (Tian Yuan)

Teacher Flavia (Josie Ho - Purple Storm) encounters free spirited Yip (Tian Yuan) and strikes up a relationship with the younger girl. She is haunted by a similar experience in the past with a human rights activist, ending up being heartbroken. Now in her 30s and married with children, she slowly dares to break out, worried about the consequences but equally about finding her true self again...

A new force within the realms of Hong Kong independent cinema, female director Yan Yan Mak here has gathered up name talent and a little bit more budget compared to her debut Brother (aka GeGe) from 2001. Adapted from the short story "The Mark Of Butterfly" by Chen Xue, content that stands out is obviously that of lesbianism but as with Stanley Kwan's excellent Lan Yu, Yan Yan Mak isn't out to exploit the issue. No, Butterfly, a title that says a whole lot, is thankfully a woman's journey talking about breaking out of an locked cage of emotions and is a strong sophomore effort from Yan.

Although Charlie Lam's cinematography is often times carefully composed and attractive, Yan's film does look like an indie quite a bit with its handheld style and uninterrupted long takes but that technical aspect combined with the actor direction from Yan Yan Mak becomes a strong point of the film because there's nothing more enjoyable than watching good acting uninterrupted. With the reference made to Lan Yu, it's also appropriate to reference Shu Kei's overly politically correct A Queer's Story as that still stands as a poor example of a Hong Kong film dealing with homosexuality. Butterfly doesn't shy away from its subject matter, certainly pours on the eroticism (without any nudity I might add) but for all its feelings of being explicit, it's in fact a truth created here, leaning towards innocence and intimacy where we might see actors but ones doing the do realistically.

Yan's script does occupy itself mainly with a clearly told, but not overbearingly so, journey where Josie Ho's exceptional portrayal of Flavia, confused and soul searching becomes a highly compelling center piece of the film. I can't avoid using the word familiarity as this is one example where that pitfall into it never happens thanks to the written and acted delivery by Yan and Ho respectively. It's subtle enough to be challenging but it's not buried in arthouse sensibilities (other parts of the film are, more on that below). Flavia is driven by guilt and desire at the same time, in itself a great complexity the film deals with as well as the fact that consequences are unavoidable and it all will spark debate if you're so inclined. Debate surrounding prejudice, responsibility as a parent and towards those you're bound to.

The texture is absolutely fine and is added onto in an equally fantastic way by Eric Kot, far, far, far removed from his otherwise known comedic persona. Ming the husband it's impossible not to feel for as he becomes a victim and hurt even more as he untangles the web of lies himself. In many ways, it's easy to agree with him, at other times we ask him to not deal with the issue but to accept facts. There are hints at a fragile marriage anyway and also hints of an unspeakable, potential danger as Kot plays Ming extremely bottled up emotionally. While I adore Tian Yuan's award winning debut (and her band Hopscotch provides several atmospheric tracks from the "A Wishful Way" album released the year before) and she does have a mesmerizing presence, it's a damn unfair to see both Josie Ho and Eric Kot go unnoticed by the awards juries but when those ceremonies finally turns into fair occasions where justice is made, we won't have anything to complain about and where's the fun in that?

So Butterfly registers almost extremely favourably mostly but at 129 minutes, it's not that it's long but Yan Yan Mak clearly suffers from some pretentious traits that needs to be ejected quick. Featuring what looks like 16mm film footage at times for both logical but mostly un logical reasons, this viewer can't find a single arguably good reason to switch between the looks. As with an otherwise great indie film of recent years, The Runaway Pistol by Lam Wah-Chuen, it's all a rubbish and a lame tool 9 out of 10 times. Soi Cheang got away with it in Diamond Hill for some reason in my mind however. Another problem is the welcome but overly long flashback story of Flavia and Jin (Isabel Chan and Joman Chiang respectively) that probably could've been cut down by a few scenes and still gotten the point across.

Yan Yan Mak however emerges, just like Carol Lai did with her second feature The Floating Landscape as a director with attention to how to make accessible and challenging drama, now having genuine profiles of the industry at her disposal. Butterfly may have recycled elements but they're executed with a great big leap over the pit of familiarity and Yan delivers an affecting journey concerning lesbianism. It gets arousing at times but you'll rather by impressed by the depth of the performances, aided by a largely error free indie style of filmmaking.

The DVD:

Presented by Panorama in anamorphic widescreen, framed at 1.78:1, the presentation reflects the low budget origins at times and isn't the most vivid or sharp presentation. The more carefully composed Charlie Lam shots looks better though and all in all, the different looks seems to represent intentions by the filmmakers.

The mixed language track (Cantonese and Mandarin mainly with some English) in Dolby Digital 2.0 contains clear dialogue and music adds fine atmosphere when employed. A 5.1 option is also available.

Aside from some minor spelling errors, the English subtitles do a good job in conveying all situations. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.

Panorama are stepping up their focus on genuine special editions, even going so far as subtitling extra features into English. They've not yet gone the lengths to translate audio commentaries so the Cantonese language track on hand here featuring co-producer/writer/director Yan Yan Mak, actor Eric Kot and film critic Kwan King Chung is of no use to anyone in need of a translation. For the goodies that Westerners CAN take in, we move on to disc 2.

The disc is kind enough to let us know under the subtitles section which programs to expect that on. The first one being the Exclusive Interviews With The Cast. First out of the gate is Josie Ho (8 minutes, 48 seconds), answering the on-screen questions with enthusiasm and intelligence. Topics include talk of a deleted scene she thought was vital, her own insecurities about child care, other ending possibilities, and the struggles with a particular scene that inspired an English language poem that Josie gave away as a present to director Yan Yan Mak.

Tian Yuan is up next (9 minutes, 24 seconds), providing tidbits about her first acting experience, the surprise at getting nominated for awards, her choice of ending the film if given the chance of rewriting it and music career vs. one in film. A fairly insightful look at the train of thoughts of the young musician/actress.

(from the Josie Ho, Tian Yuan & Eric Kot interviews)

Eric Kot quickly breaks out out of any subdued behaviour in the film for his 6 minute, 10 second chat, first revealing that Butterfly at one point ran 3 hours. He then gives us a solid take on the meaning of the film from his character's perspective and his radically different choice of ending on a comedic level as well as on a serious one. Kot also touches upon his background as a graphic artist (he was behind the poster art for 2004's Jiang Hu, the only good thing to come out of that project) and rightly puts forth the idea that as an actor you can always improve.

Isabel Chan and Joman Chiang are paired up for the final piece (7 minutes, 55 seconds). A giddy pair of young actresses, they go into fair detail about what they gained from the Butterfly experience, the sometimes difficult to understand tactics of Yan Yan Mak and once again, the "what if you could change the ending" question comes up. I sense an insecurity on the filmmaker's behalf.

The Making-of Documentary (17 minutes, 27 seconds) utilizes a 16mm look to be in tune with the film and is more of a slight retrospective on making the film. We see Josie Ho interviewed at the beach in Venice, having gone to the Film Festival to promote Butterfly and Tian Yuan also turns up at a separate interview session. Some information from the prior interviews appears again but generally we get a worthwhile look at the unusual challenges of making the film. Topics include the love scenes, finding new ways to act, gaining experience from working with the veterans and Ho expresses a fear for Eric Kot's changed acting persona in the film.

(Josie Ho in acting mode and director Yan Yan Mak in her element, from the making-of)

15 deleted scenes (total running time 23 minutes, 30 seconds) with optional Cantonese commentary by Yan Yan Mak represents a major extra but Panorama dropped the ball here by giving us absolutely no subtitles whatsoever. What can be picked up by just watching is some minor additions but they doesn't seem to lift the film into a new realm. These includes scenes with Josie Ho's Flavia still pregnant, her popularity with her students, more cracks in the marriage, extended happy and sad times for young Flavia and Jin, the purchase of the 16mm camera and an extension to the attempted suicide scene by Flavia's mother that takes place in the 70s (the scene Ho refers to during her interview).

The music video for at17's "The Best Is Yet To Come" (made up of movie clips only) and the theatrical trailer ends disc 2...almost. An Easter Egg can be found by highlighting the Making-of Documentary option and clicking left on your remote to highlight the butterfly. This will take you to a second music video, this time the "I See You" song by Hopscotch, featured briefly in the film described by Tian Yuan in her interview.

(a look at two of the deleted scenes)

Also in the package is a fine looking 16 page booklet containing both Chinese and English content. Director's statement is an interesting piece from Yan Yan Mak, talking about her way of filmmaking and the deep rooted effects of the summer of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Yan and Josie Ho also gets informative biographies while the remainder of the cast (Tian Yu, Eric Kot, Joman Chiang and Isabel Chan) receive more your basic career summaries. The booklet ends with a more spoiler filled and philosophical plot synopsis plus autographs from the cast & crew involved. An addition such as this and well-done subtitles on some of the special features has made Panorama a player on the Hong Kong dvd market to look out for. Their problem is that they may feel like putting in effort on only certain titles, regardless of box office success.

Yesasia buyers also have the option of purchasing the Hopscotch album "A Wishful Way" (with Tian Yuan on vocals and piano) together with this 2 disc set. Containing 3 songs ("A Wishful Way", "Try To" and "She") that were lifted into Butterfly, giving it a quick listen, it's clear and understandable why Yan Yan Mak felt she could incorporate the mellow, dreamy pop sounds into her film. The group also offers up a more intensely programmed and psychedelic side on songs like "Sometimes" and "A Faker". As Hopscotch were invited to Sweden's Global City Music Festival, the members apparently took to heart the various signs of the local subway system and incorporated them into the booklet illustrations.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson