Review by: Louise Lin
SCUM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Type IV Yellow Fever and proof of how gender is really just a state of mind
M. Butterfly manages to be compelling, bizarre and slyly humorous all at once, with a dynamic ending that packs a powerful punch to my head and yet successfully taunts me with the bittersweet aftertaste of tragic romance. I can’t say this is David Cronenberg’s best; the film doesn’t quite rank up there with his other masterpieces, but it is nevertheless unforgettable. Ooh yes, Cronenberg proves there’s more to him than just horror. Performances by both leads, Jeremy Irons (René Gallimard) and John Lone (Song Liling) are nothing short of enigmatic. The undercurrents of sexual tension were so raw, genuine and electrifying to the point that gender identity becomes irrelevant and I found myself irresistibly drawn into the torturous long running passion they have for each other.
French Diplomat René Gallimard arrives in China eager to date exotic Asian women and gets halfway there with Song Liling, who is a male cross-dressing Opera Diva and one badass 008 spying on him for the Chinese government. The tumultuous affair spans over 20 years during which Song takes the charade even further by producing a son, claiming that he was the fruit born of their “oriental ways of love”. Song’s male identity is finally exposed when both are tried for espionage and French police (who also took notes in biology class) help Rene to double-check his lover’s privates. Unable to accept the kinky truth, Rene takes on a role reversal and morphs into Madame Butterfly, who ends up committing suicide for the sake of an illusory love.
As implausible as it sounds, this story was based on real life events. The film doesn’t delve into physical details as to how this trickery got pulled off in the boudoir (which might be a tad disappointing for those with voyeuristic tendencies). I was initially baffled with their choice of casting. Although Lone was faultless in his mannerisms as a traditional Chinese woman, he looks way too stocky to be mistaken for a female, plus I find it somehow disturbing that he sounds like Michael Jackson each time he says his lines as “butterfly”. The slender, androgynous ideal that first came to mind for the role was Leslie Cheung, who was brilliant in “Farewell My Concubine”. In hindsight, however, the use of a robust actor with rugged features rather illustrates and accentuates the depth of Rene’s surreal infatuation. That is to say, what is starkly obvious to the audience remained obscure from Rene in his delusion on account of his willingness to deviate from reality and stay in his “butterfly dream”. The love he has for his “butterfly” was so powerful that it blinded him and made him receptive to all the lies and fabrications Song subjected him to, eventually spiralling out of control and veering on to the path of self-destruction.
The screenplay by David Henry Hwang was based on his play of the same name, which was in turn inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. However, the ‘M’ in the title does not stand for Madame. M. is the abbreviation for Monsieur in the French fashion and Hwang meant to tease us with an ambiguous title that’s open to interpretation. Indeed, does M. Butterfly point to Song the Opera Singer in woman’s disguise? Or was it referencing to Gallimard, since he was the one who winds up killing himself with a broken heart? This was made explicit in the final scene with his performance piece, in which he identifies himself with the victim in the opera.
Gallimard wanted to assert his masculinity by exercising power over a beautiful and submissive woman, and Song fleshed out this fantasy character for him. It illuminated the ongoing conflict between both sexes, as well as the differences between East and West and Orientalist stereotypes. We are sarcastically told that men continue to play women in Chinese opera because ”only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” That Gallimard was fated to love ”a woman created by a man” poignantly touches a nerve, for the male culture that inspired his ”perfect woman” continues to survive present-day in the form of fetish material and blow up dolls. How many times did a woman not try to conform to this ideal by altering her appearance?
Who is the actual dominant in this relationship? Was it Rene the aggressor, or was it Song who manipulated him to achieve one’s ends? Who is the true submissive? Song, who bowed to Rene’s fantasy to be his mistress, or Rene whose fantasy became his own jailer? In pretty much the same way, debates on gender roles versus empowerment twist back and forth without ever coming to rest entirely, so we might never have an answer.