Hu Die
2004 / 124m - Hong Kong
Drama, Romance
Butterfly poster

Hong Kong loves a good butterfly reference and throughout the 00s there have been quite a few notable LGBTQ+ stories coming out of (greater) China. Just to illustrate why I didn't remember Yan-Yan Mak's Butterfly [Hu Die] all that well. Having seen it again, I'm fairly certain my memories of the film will go down a similar route in the years to come, but that doesn't mean Butterly isn't worth a watch. It's a very sweet and accomplished romantic drama that hits all the right notes, it's just that there are so many similar films hitting very similar notes.

screencap of Butterfly [Hu Die]

The film made quite a ruckus when it was first released, but don't go in expecting anything too explicit. Hong Kong cinema is very prudish when it comes to sex, and to have two women kissing and frolicking on screen is already pretty next level for them. That's about as far as the film pushes it, though the natural performances and the subtle drama no doubt made it more difficult for hardened naysayers to dismiss the film as simple titillation. It's exactly this softer and more natural approach that gives Butterfly a slight edge over many of its peers.

The central choice of the film is a pretty common one in LGBTQ+ cinema: do I continue living a lie or will I confront my true self and live the way that feels right? Butterfly doesn't add anything too original to that premise, but it treats it with the proper respect and it raises the stakes of the choice ever so slightly. I don't think the point is to side with the main character and the decisions she makes, it's more about the difficult situation she ended up in by not being true to herself when it mattered. And the lingering consequences that failure has on the people around her.

Flavia is happily married and just recently had her first kid. Her life is about to change when she bumps into Yip, a young woman who barely gets by on her own. Yip fancies Flavia, who is instantly reminded of a lesbian relationship she had in high school. Flavia is attracted to Yip too, but years ago she decided to leave that life behind her, in an attempt to please her parents. Now that a similar situation presents itself she can't simply ignore it any longer and Flavia is willing to commit one more time, even though it may result in the end of her marriage.

screencap of Butterfly [Hu Die]

Butterfly is a pleasant-looking film, without too many stand-out moments. At first, I got more of a Taiwanese vibe from it, thanks to the stylish cinematography, the moody colors, and the subtle editing, but the setting immediately brings it back to Hong Kong. The flashbacks are shot in a grainy and fuzzy style, going for that oldskool camcorder look, which ironically dates it as a quintessential 00's film. It's certainly above-average looking, I just wish there had been a few more defining shots throughout. That might've helped to make it that tiny bit more memorable.

I'm delighted to say that for once, the score left a bigger impact. Hong Kong films aren't known for bringing distinctive musical choices to the table, but thanks to a selection of Múm tracks (the Icelandic trip-hop project) the film feels more contemporary. That's a little odd to say about a two-decades-old feature, but film is such a traditional medium that sadly, it makes quite a lot of sense. The soundtrack is put to good effect and adds tons of atmosphere, the original score is more traditional though, and fades more into the background. But overall, I was very impressed with the music.

Tian Yuan's performance is strong, but it's Josie Ho who confidently flexes her acting muscles here. She's one of the fiercest women working in the Hong Kong film business, both in front and behind the camera, and she shows what she is capable of. There's plenty of chemistry between the two, with Erik Kot as the proverbial third wheel. He isn't quite as subtle, but he certainly looks the part and fares a lot better than more renowned Hong Kong actors trying to act in dramas. The rest of the cast is decent, but in the end, it's all about Ho and Yuan.

screencap of Butterfly [Hu Die]

Flavia's struggle neatly coincides with her past trauma, but the film never feels too forced or leading. Her worries and trepidation are properly linked to bad choices and unexplored potential in her past, yet the logic is always sound and the strong performances make the drama more tangible. The direction of the plot is pretty predictable though and because of that the longish runtime may pose a slight hindrance. Then again, this isn't a film about big surprises or swooping twists, but about lingering emotions and the quest for one's true self.

Butterfly is a pleasant drama, never faltering or missing a beat, but also never coloring outside of the lines. It's like a good genre film, in that it's predictable but executed to perfection. The stylish cinematography, the beautiful soundtrack, and two amazing central performances make this a lively and empathic LGBTQ+ romance, though lacking a few distinctive touches to turn itself into a strong personal favorite. It still won me over the second time around, so that means it's doing something right. If you like Asian drama, chances are you missed this one before, so make an effort if you find an opportunity to watch it.