WTF ASIA 59: Butterfly (2004)
To celebrate LGBT Pride Month, I give you
ASIAN TEENAGE LESBIANS!!!
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Flavia is thirty-years-old. She teaches at a girlsâ€™ 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 to Flavia later that she had actually been observing her and figured that she would pay up. Yip is an aspiring musician, only a few years older than Flaviaâ€™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 Yipâ€™s pretty brazen advances.
Without so much as saying the words, both have pretty much figured out each otherâ€™s deal. Flavia then reveals in a somewhat cautiously roundabout way that she had a lesbian relationship with a friend when they were teenagers, but the 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 loveâ€¦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. And I feel like I should point out right here that all of the actresses in question were most likely above the age of 18 at the time of filming. Anyways, young Flavia was carefree and gleeful whenever she was with Jin, in contrast with her rather uneasy family life. Jin was wild and rebellious, joining the pro-Democracy movement. Then, the inevitable happened. They broke up. They grew up. They grew apart. They grew out of it. Or maybe not.
Flaviaâ€™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 Rosaâ€™s place for dinner; apparently Rosa had invited her back. Flavia is, again, cautious. She initially tries to suppress the desire to go by having sex with her husbandâ€¦but 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 and they eventually wind up 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 that they were in a lesbian relationship and beat her. They plead with Flavia to give them money so that they can run away, but 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 Chinese democracy 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.
The movie 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, there is a sense that it is a frivolous lifestyle that has to eventually be set aside for marriage and parenting. 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, but the feelings that she had bottled up never went away and start chipping away at her life.
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.
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 â€œSmells Like Teen Spiritâ€ 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 â€œSmells Like Teen Spiritâ€ was originally supposed to play (in 1989, no less), 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 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.
This movie has had somewhat mixed reviews. Some people (such as myself) really like it, while others find it too unfocused or aimless or just downright boring. 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 the criticism, and I admit that these things have bothered me in other movies, but I feel like they work here. I found this to be a wonderful movie about what is lost to time and what never goes away.
Next Time: The Front Line (South Korea: 2011, approx. 135 minutes).
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Time After Next: Pinjar (India: 2003, approx. 190 minutes)