Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Warner Bros. VHS
René Gallimard, an accountant at the French Embassy in China circa 1967, is invited to a party at the Swedish Embassy where he sees a performance of highlights from Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly, performed by a Chinese ensemble led by the stunning star of the Beijing opera, Song Liling. René tells the beautiful chanteuse that he was captivated by her performance as the Japanese woman who kills herself when she is abandoned by her lover, a United States Naval officer. Song counters that it comes as no surprise that he likes it since the submissive Oriental woman is a typical Western male fantasy. Utterly fascinated with Song’s beauty and wit, René pursues her recklessly, flagrantly ignorant of his marriage and position. Song is hesitant at first to submit to René’s advances, claiming modesty and a certain respect for Chinese custom but soon capitulates to René’s heated desire, albeit on her own terms — sexually and emotionally. Soon, Song tells René that she is pregnant and must return to her village until she the child is three months old, an ancient Chinese custom. Unbeknownst to René, Song is a spy for the Communist Party and has been milking him for sensitive political information regarding Vietnam. Song returns to René with their son, but only just before she is sent to a labor camp for being an artist, which is now, despite her work for the government, a criminal occupation under the new strictures of the Cultural Revolution.
Due to his rash errors in judgment and the changing political climate in Asia in 1968, René loses his position and returns to France to eke out a meager living. His wife and all of his important colleagues have abandoned him and he lives in a small flat, serving himself tea and wallowing in the memories he has of China. His memories are complicated by the May 1968 revolts in Paris, a reminder of the revolution that led to so much personal pain for him in China. Miraculously, Song returns to René in Paris and convinces him to take a job as a diplomatic courier where he might once again have access to crucial secrets. Song tells René that he must allow her to give government secrets to the Chinese in order to get back their son. Soon, René is arrested on counts of espionage. During René’s trial, the most damning testimony is given by what gives new meaning to the term “surprise witness”: Song, revealed to be a man.
Regardless of the fact that the film was adapted from a major, award-winning play and had a relatively high budget for a Cronenberg film (he was able, for the first time, to film outside of North America in locations as far-flung as The Great Wall of China, Budapest, and Paris), the film tanked in a major way at the box office at the end of 1993. For this, one can probably blame Warner Bros., who clearly had no idea how to market this film, but one can blame equally a viewing public whose response to two men kissing on screen (even if they are supposed to think one of them is a woman) is squeamish at best, and whose appetite for cross-dressing surprises, if it existed at all, was probably sated by Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game a year earlier. Since then, the film virtually has vanished from public memory and video store shelves, available only as a pan-and-scan videotape release and featureless laserdisc.
Viewing the credits, the film doesn’t seem like a Cronenberg “auteur piece.” The author of the original play, David Henry Hwang, is not only the screenwriter, but also a producer. It is likely that Hwang hand picked Cronenberg to direct this work, but it is also likely that he wasn’t the first choice. What’s evident from watching the film, however, is that Cronenberg either made significant alterations to the script or convinced Hwang, in his adaptation from play to screenplay, to make alterations that would make the material more cinematic and less theatrical.
The original play is a dense, narratively complex work that explores issues of authenticity, cultural stereotyping and imperialism, and gender — all of which are no doubt addressed in dozens of English majors’ honors theses somewhere — but is constructed as a chamber piece for a handful of actors. Cronenberg keeps the intimacy of the play but smoothes out the narrative into linear thread, excises the more mawkishly sentimental moments from the play, and humanizes the characters so that the film seems less a postmodern zing at Madama Butterfly than a story of one man who saw his country’s relationship with another as a metaphor for sex and another man who saw sex as a metaphor for his country’s relationship with another, a small lie played out against the background of international politics and history.
M. Butterfly is Cronenberg’s least-known and most underrated work, far superior to his great cult hit, Scanners. At first blush, Butterfly, might appear to be an anomaly in Cronenberg’s oeuvre, something he might have as a director-for-hire to finance a future project more similar to his other work. While it’s true that the film is more emotionally direct and more sexually straightforward than most of his others, the same Cronenbergian themes and obsessions are at play and the usual complex relationships between people, bodies, and minds are all a major part of the story and the film should be considered a major entry in Cronenberg’s series of complicated and sophisticated literary adaptations — an equal to Crash, Naked Lunch, and Spider.