Butterfly, the second feature film from Hong Kong arthouse director Yan Yan Mak (and based on a Taiwanese short story), has been getting a lot of buzz on the international film festival circuit for the last year or so. It's won oodles of awards and been nominated for oodles more. Though it will probably find itself with some sort of limited arthouse run in North America at some point, it's been recently released as a nice two disc special edition in Hong Kong with no region coding which makes it compatible with DVD players world wide.
The film follows a woman named Flavia (Josie Ho) who is a schoolteacher in her mid thirties. She's married and has a family now but when she was younger she had a very passionate lesbian affair with Jin (Stephanie Che). The more she thinks back on this ordeal, the more she realizes that her marriage is oppressing her and preventing her from really and truly being herself. One day while out grocery shopping, Flavia runs into a musician named Yip and old longings for Jin are reawakened.
Yan Yan Mak does a fine job of pacing the film by flashing back to the women's younger days and contrasting them to how they've grown up into adulthood. This gives an interesting look at the way that Flavia, who did truly love Jin when she was younger, denied her true feelings and yearnings and went the traditional route – get married, get a job, raise a family, etc.. When her old feelings re-imerge, she transforms like the butterfly of the title and comes out of her cocoon so to speak, lending the title it's significance. It is through the flashback scenes that we come to realize how destiny seems to be working on the two women from the very start, and how Flavia seems to have been, until recently at least, fighting that very same destiny.
Performances are very solid all around. Josie Ho (The Twins Effect) does a fine job in her role, playing it with just enough genuine confusion as to her real identity to be a legitimately sympathetic character. Her teenage counterpart does a fine job in the flashback scenes as well. Stephanie Che steals the show as Jin, lending some real life to he performance that raises the film up a notch or two. Both of the ladies are quite believable in their roles
The color scheme used in the film plays a big part in the success of the atmosphere that the filmmakers are able to create. Subtle tones of primary reds, greens and blues coat much of the picture and give it an unusual quality that perfectly fits the storyline.
The main flaw with the film is that at one hundred and twenty nine minutes it tends to feel overly long in a few parts. When it's on, it's on and it proves to be not only a fine dramatic movie but also an interesting character study (though often those two things do go hand in hand) but a couple of scenes in the middle part of the film drag just a little bit. It's a minor complain though, and Butterfly certainly gets a lot more right than it gets wrong.
Panorama's 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is very nice. While there is some noticeable edge enhancement pretty much throughout, print damage is never a problem nor is mpeg compression. Some faint shimmering is noticeable in a few scenes but the colors are nice and strong and the image is clean and clear with a nice, high level of detail.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix comes with optional subtitles available in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and English. Though there are some awkward moments in the English subtitle translations, for the most part Panorama has done a fine job with the audio on this release. While there isn't a lot of background music or too many sound effects used throughout the movie, the dialogue is crystal clear and when the movie calls for channel separation, you get it. Bass response, while minimal because of the sound design for the film itself, is fine when it needs to be but for the most part that isn't all that often. This is a pretty mellow track, but it works just fine within the context of the story that the film is telling. There's also a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix available on the disc as well, also in Cantonese.
On the first disc, the only extra feature is a commentary track with director Yan Yan Mak, actor Eric Kot, and film critic Kwan King Chun. Unfortunately there are no English language dub or subtitle options provided for this track so I've got no idea what they're talking about but they seem to be having fun on it.
On the second disc is a "Making Of" feature that runs roughly seventeen minutes and features interviews with the majority of the principal cast members who discuss their roles in the film as well as how they feel about the subject matter. To make this feature stand out, they've shot it using some of the same mixed media techniques that were used to give the feature itself it's distinctive look.
There are also interviews with Josie Ho (8:34), Tian Yuan (9:12), Eric Kot (5:57), and Isabel Chan with Joman Chiang(7:48). Each of the cast members discusses in some detail their role in the film, how they feel about the subject matter, how they got into character and how a few of them could relate to the roles that they were playing in the film. Josie Ho and Eric Kot are the most interesting interviews, Ho goes into some nice detail about her working relationship with the director and Eric Kot is just amiable and humorous.
There are deleted fifteen scenes available with or without commentary from the director (again, no subtitles for the commentary and sadly, none for the deleted scenes either). As best I could tell, there's nothing to earth shattering contained in these scenes, mostly character interaction and minor 'getting to know you' scenes that were likely (and wisely) cut for pacing and length reasons.
Rounding out the extras on the second disc are a music video for the song "The Best is Yet to Come-at17" and the film's theatrical trailer. There's also an Easter Egg that brings you to a second music video (just click the big butterfly on the upper left side of the main menu screen on the second disc – it isn't hard to find).
Worth noting is how nice a job Panorama has done on the packaging for this two-disc set. Not only does the slipcase look subtle and elegant but also the menu design on the DVDs themselves is also top notch. A nice color booklet in both English and Chinese is also included inside the first keepcase that gives a director's statement as well as some biographical information on a few of the cast members.
Butterfly isn't going to be for all tastes - it's a slow moving Asian lesbian drama and as such it will have a limited audience in North America. That being said, it is a very well made film with solid direction and two very good performances even if the story drags just a little bit. Panorama's DVD looks and sounds great and the extras aren't half bad. Given that, this two disc set comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.