Directed By David Cronenberg
Screenplay by David Henry Hwang
Featuring Jeremy Irons, John Lone and Ian Richardson
Reviewed by L. Pradhan
M.Butterfly opens in Beijing in 1964, where Rene Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) is a lowly accountant in the French embassy. One evening, Gallimard goes to an embassy function where he sees a performance of Madame Butterfly. He becomes infatuated with the opera singer, Song Liling, and finds her comments concerning the "imperialistic West" challenging to his point of view and way of life.
Gallimard is promoted to vice consul, and his new powerful position makes him a target for Song Liling, who plays the role of a Mata Hari, using her sexuality to gain military secrets from him.
Gallimard makes predictions to the ambassador (Ian Richardson) that the US will be successful in Vietnam and that the Chinese will happily trade with the US and Europe because they will follow anyone with strength and admire the power of the West. These major errors in judgment are caused by his relationship with Liling, whom he has slowly come to dominate, transforming her attitude toward him (inexplicably). She has become simply his "Butterfly".
The film has two levels, one of political intrigue and the other the relationship which develops between Gallimard and his "Butterfly". Although the film was portrayed as one of devious political machinations and it lured us with Ian Richardson from the television series House of Cards, do not go rushing to M. Butterfly to find satisfaction in this area. Apparently, the original play (written by Hwang, who then adapted it for the screen) was altered at Cronenberg's request so that the relationship between the characters has been highlighted, much to the detriment of an interesting story.
Gallimard is completely unaware that the female lead in Chinese operas is usually played by men, and he is therefore unaware that his lover, Liling, is a man. How is this possible? Well, Song Liling (John Lone) never takes his clothes off! Unlikely indeed, but it is based on a true story. But the real life Liling must have done a better job than Lone does of concealing his true gender.
Cronenberg wanted to present us with the idea that when we fall in love, it is with an image and not the real person behind that image. This theme wears off very quickly, and the only saving feature of this film is John Lone's performance as the diva of Chinese opera (even though he is never wholly convincing as a woman). Jeremy Irons is capable of a great deal more as he demonstrated in films such as Dead Ringers, also directed by Cronenberg.
For a much more enjoyable experience, see Farewell My Concubine, which covers all of this and much more and manages to do so with great success.