BUTTERFLY (Yan Yan Mak, 2004)

A tender, elusive Hong Kong lesbian melodrama, one as suffused with haunted memory as anything by Resnais, Hu die establishes Yan Yan Mak as a major filmmaker. One is drawn into the dream of reality that she has created, and one gets lost there. Testing the dream is a shard of incontestable reality: the televised Tiananmen Square confrontations that are included in the flashbacks; but the thematic tie-in compels. The suppression of freedom and choice in whatever arena exacts a terrible toll.
     But what is Flavia to do? A middle-aging university professor, she finds her half-forgotten memories of a long-ago lesbian attachment rekindled with the intrusion into her life of Ye Xiao, a forward, openly lesbian young woman. Much of Mak’s exquisite film consists of painful flashbacks to a time when one didn’t have much of a choice, perhaps didn’t quite know there was a choice to be made. All the same, Flavia did make a choice, or allowed others to make a choice for her, and now she is a wife and mother. Moreover, she is married to a very patient man.
     Life is full of such ephemeral matter that it can slip right through our fingers without our noticing—until later, when something happens to help us experience, as though for the first time, something in our past in a less than coherent way but, rather, as a piercing lot of feelings. If you don’t know what I mean, Mak’s film may frustrate you. If you do know, however, it might devastate you.
     Some have complained about the lack of romantic passion in what we are shown. I look at this differently—as part of Mak’s artillery of distancing devices, along with the shifts between film and video.
     Part of the dream.

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