M. Butterfly is a 1993 American film directed by David Cronenberg and adapted by David Henry Hwang from his 1988 play of the same name. The work is a deconstruction of Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly, about a young geisha who kills herself after her American husband abandons her. Set in Beijing in the 1960s and loosely based on true events, it deals with the relationship between Rene Gallimard (Jeremy Irons), a bureaucrat attached to the French Embassy in China, and Song Lilong (John Lone), a singer in the all-male Bejing Opera, whom Gallimard believes is a woman. The two begin an affair that lasts for almost twenty years, during which Gallimard remains ignorant of Song’s true nature; Song even clams to be the mother of Gallimard’s child. All the while, Song is spying on Gallimard’s diplomatic connections for the Chinese government. When his subterfuge is finally discovered two decades later, Gallimard is put on trial for treason, and he is shocked when Song is revealed as a man. Disgusted and heartbroken, he stages a performance in the prison with himself as Puccini’s heroine. The final scene shows Song being extradited to China as Gallimard disembowels himself on stage with a piece of glass.
M. Butterfly deals with many issues common to Western representations of the East, including Oriental stereotypes, the erotic discourse of colonialism, and the importance of Western notions of masculinity. It also explores questions of identity and gender and the state of China during the Cultural Revolution, as well as framing both its story and Puccini’s opera in the context of a larger body of Orientalist works. Hwang ultimately frames the affair between Gallimard and Song as a mutual performance in which each engage in artificial Oriental stereotypes for their personal gain. This is underlined by the film’s references to Puccini’s opera as well as Song’s occupation as an opera singer and transvestite. In doing so, Hwang probes into the masculine nature of much Orientalist discourse. From a historical perspective, the film’s setting in the Cultural Revolution politicizes it’s representation of gender fluidity and Western stereotypes. Questions of identity and destiny also loom large in the film and are most significantly explored through Gallimard’s transformation throughout the film. As a film adaptation of a play, the added use of cinematography plays an integral role in conveying the major messages of the film, and uses several types of shots and scenes that have been successfully used by previous Western dramas about Asia. These aspects of the film are explored in greater depth below.
Colonial Romance: M. Butterfly and Madama Butterfly
It is perhaps fitting that the play M. Butterfly, written by David Henry Hwang and adapted for the screen by director David Cronenberg, would be, above all else, a story of self-deception. The adaptations take different focuses; Hwang’s play is a sharp deconstruction of the erotic power-play embedded in the Western myth of “the Orient,” as exemplified by Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly, while Cronenberg’s film adaptation is an almost surgical look at the fragility of the male ego. Nevertheless, both versions, at their heart, are concerned with the overwhelming power the Western narrative of the Orient has over men, and by extension, why such a narrative came to be.
What is interesting is that in Hwang’s tale, this masculine appeal is not limited to Europeans, but holds sway over Rene Gallimard’s lover Song Lilong as well, who exploits Gallimard’s fantasies for both political gain and personal satisfaction. Song is playing multiple roles: not only does he start an affair with Gallimard in order to spy on French diplomatic activities for the Chinese government, but he is passing as a woman as well. His cross-dressing is significant in that only a Westerner would be unaware that Chinese opera roles are traditionally played by men. In other words, it is a duplicity made uniquely possible by Gallimard’s racial and cultural differences.
Power dynamics are key to this relationship: Gallimard is so obsessed by his personal fantasy of an Oriental romance that he is willfully, pathologically blind to Song’s true nature. Irons’s performance emphasizes the character’s outsized arrogance and concern with masculinity, qualities that are paired with an astonishing myopia. Indeed, as he declares near the end of the film: “There is a vision of the Orient that I have. Of slender women in cheongsams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils.” Gallimard’s Orient, like many before it, is a distinctly masculine fantasy. What makes Hwang’s story unique is that Song, too, is a willing participant in this fantasy, although his is perhaps a female one. Approximately midway through the film, we see him sitting on his bed at home, looking at magazines. He pauses over a cover featuring Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong. It is no coincidence that M. Butterfly is not only a deconstruction of Puccini’s opera, but that Song is an opera singer as well. Hwang frames the classic romantic vision of the Orient, in its most heightened form, as performance. One of the film and play’s most significant lines occurs when Song asks his Communist party superior if he knows why Chinese opera roles are played by men: “Because,” Song tells him, “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” This statement is in itself an encapsulation of colonial romance, but it also speaks to Song’s personal desires. Gallimard escapes from his dull marriage through his affair with Song, but Song, too, is freed: from a life of maleness. In M. Butterfly, that theater is mutual.
This brings us back to Hwang’s decision to use Puccini’s opera as the backdrop for his story. Their plots bear many similarities, but what is perhaps more interesting are the differences. Puccini’s opera – today, the most frequently performed operatic work in the world – is itself based on a short story by John Luther Long, who reportedly based his tale off of stories he heard from his sister, the wife of an American missionary in Japan. It concerns the marriage of the fifteen-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-san (taken from the Japanese word for butterfly, chô) to an American naval officer named Pinkerton. Cio-Cio is deeply in love, but Pinkerton thinks of her as only a temporary distraction. Soon after the wedding, he leaves Japan, but Cio-Cio has faith he will return to her – and to their newborn son. When he eventually returns with his new, American wife, Cio-Cio is so devastated that she kills herself with her father’s sword. The opera’s signature aria, “Un Bel Dì Vedremo (One Beautiful Day, We Will See),” occurs at the moment when Cio-Cio’s maid, Suzuki, is urging her to give up on her fantasy of Pinkerton’s return. Cio-Cio responds she is certain he will return one day.
Patricia Racette performs “Un Bel Dì Vedremo” in a 2009 Metropolitan Opera production
Rene Gallimard watches Song Lilong (John Lone) perform “Un Bel Dì Vedremo” in Beijing
“Un Bel Dì” is heard several times in M. Butterfly: Song is performing it when Gallimard first sees him, and Gallimard is shown listening to it on a record player repeatedly throughout the film. Most significantly, it plays over the film’s final scene, when Gallimard, in prison for espionage, assumes the role of Cio-Cio and stabs himself – on stage, no less, dressed in drag as Puccini’s heroine, while Cronenberg’s film intercuts with a suit-clad Song flying home to China. At this moment, Hwang’s Orientalism-as-performance motif reaches its thematic peak: in the name of the sexual fantasy that has shaped his life, Gallimard reveals himself to be not the Pinkerton of this story, but its Butterfly – willing to die than suffer life without his “lost love”, stabbing himself with a piece of glass in the name of purity and immortality. It is this moment, at this crucial reversal of roles, that Hwang reveals the Oriental fantasy to be an inherently self-destructive one rather than merely oppressive.
Perhaps the play, and the film, has its signature moment when, as Song and Gallimard share a holding cell in France during their espionage trial, Song reveals himself as a man for the first time in their twenty years together. Gallimard is repulsed and devastated. “You are nothing like my Butterfly,” he says.
“Are you sure?” replies Song.
The Cultural Revolution and M. Butterfly: Gender Fluidity, Western Expectations, and the Hypocrisy of Men
When discussing a film, it is imperative to first explore and understand both the context in which it is produced and the temporal and cultural period it portrays on the screen. David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly (1993) depicts a very specific, and very important, period in modern Chinese history and East-West political relations. Though it spans several decades, the main thrust of the film’s narrative is implicitly tied to the era in Maoist China referred to as the Cultural Revolution. This was a time of great social upheaval, political chaos, and outright mass violence. Lasting from 1966 to 1976, the movement sought to root out bourgeois influences within the party, attack the remnants of “feudalism” in Chinese society, and do away with aspects of traditional culture. One of the main tenets of the Cultural Revolution, and of Maoist Communism as a whole, was the dismantlement of the patriarchy and elements in society that were deemed counter-revolutionary. This meant that the Confucian values which had dominated China for millennia were to be disavowed and openly attacked, including the long-standing subservience of women. Gender equality was, at least ostensibly, one of the main goals of the Cultural Revolution. Traditional gender identities and family structures were subsumed by allegiance to Mao, to the Party, and to the ideals of the Communist state. Women began to cut their hair short, they switched their cheongsams for military uniforms, and community mess halls allowed women to leave the kitchen and join their male counterparts in the workforce.
With this as the cultural context for the happenings of the characters of M. Butterfly, the shifting gender paradigms, relationship between East and West, and the role of traditional Chinese culture take on new, more politicized meanings. The fluidity of gender identity in the film serves to underscore the seismic shift in Chinese culture and social customs at the time. The film’s exploration of gender construction transforms the subservient Oriental female stereotype from a Western paragon of exoticized womanhood to an Eastern weapon against European bourgeois capitalism. In one of the very first scenes of the film, Song Liling (John Lone) overtly challenges the long-held “fantasy” of the submissive Oriental woman who sacrifices herself for her Western lover, a trope which, were the roles reversed and it was a Western woman rather than an Eastern one who committed suicide, the Frenchman Rene Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) would find it appalling. However, Song does play into this stereotype later in the film, presenting himself as a sexual submissive and inexperienced woman; he never appears before Rene fully nude, and though this was largely due to a necessity to keep his true gender a secret, it still played into the notion of the Oriental woman as child-like, servile, and pure. In the scene where they first consummate their relationship, Song reiterates notions of modesty and gentility, going so far as to attribute his desire to remain clothed to his status as a Chinese ‘woman;’ of course, Rene is happy to go along with his newfound role as ‘teacher’ to Song. Later in the film, Rene describes Song as “a young, innocent schoolgirl waiting for her lessons.” Rene is being seduced by his constructed Orientalist seductress persona, though Song is clearly uncomfortable with having to play into this fantasy.
Comrade Chin, a perfect example of the de-sexualized woman of the Cultural Revolution, confronts Song about his collection of “degrading” pre-Maoist women’s magazines; he replies that, “in order to serve the Great Proletarian State I practice my deception everyday. I despise this costume, yet for the sake of our great helmsmen I will endure it, alongwith all the other bourgeois Western perversions.” Chin and Song provide the film’s entry point into the new gender identities put forth by the Cultural Revolution, as both exert a sense of androgyny and non-traditional gender characteristics which would have been seen as perverse in the West. Although this time period, in which traditional patriarchal roles and filial piety were being subverted and reversed, would seem to be one of true gender equality and female independence, it is important to note that these declarations and rules which guided the creation of the New Woman were being passed down by Mao and a mainly male party elite. Women, though given greater freedoms and responsibilities, were still being controlled by men. Song illustrates this point with the following quote: “Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” The gender fluidity of the film, with a man placed in the role of the mythical submissive Oriental woman, is both a commentary on the construction of this fantasy in Western popular culture over the past several centuries (including films like Sayonara and The World of Suzie Wong) and a product of the radical social agenda of the Cultural Revolution. Song capitalizes on Western expectations of Asian women to expose the hypocrisy and patriarchy of the imperialist, while simultaneously revealing the degree to which female identity both continues to be delineated by men and is given new freedoms under the new regime.
Finding M. Butterfly‘s True Identity
A butterfly has no control over its own identity, metamorphosis or destiny. Barring premature death, it will undoubtedly become a butterfly. Is the human metamorphosis ultimately the same fixed process?
The main question raised in M. Butterfly is whether or not humans, of any race, are more capable of altering the figurative butterfly at the end of our stories. The film attempts to define identity by contrasting it as fixed or malleable, created or assigned, and multi-faceted or simplistic. Whereas Song Liliang is afraid of her own destiny, the protagonist Rene Gallimard is confident that, “there is no destiny, except the one we make for ourselves.” Ultimately the message in M. Butterfly is that while humans use role and identity reversals as a release from the oppression of fixed destiny, they inevitably find that the relief is only temporary.
Of all the characters in the film, Gallimard tries on the most hats by far. As he first settles into his new job in Paris, a disgruntled colleague sharply prods, “You listen to me: you’re nobody. You’re worse than nobody. You’re an accountant.” painting him as boring, useless and inconsequential. Then, in the ensuing scene, Song refers to him in a letter as a “white devil” conveying danger and exoticism. At this point, Gallimard’s identity is malleable: both identities are plausible, but one has not been decided upon. This juxtaposition of two radically different notions of an identity establishes a foundation for an internal struggle.
As Gallimard’s identity crisis gets underway, the plot exposes Song as a spy leading a double-life in support of the Cultural Revolution. “In order to better serve the great proletarian state,” she says to a comrade, “I practice my deception as often as possible. I despise this costume, but for the sake of our great helmsman, I will endure it along with all the other Western, bourgeois perversions…I’m trying my best to become somebody else.” It is true that Song is a perfect actor with a truly multi-faceted identity: half lover, half spy; half woman, half man; half slave, half puppeteer. But as half were assigned by the “great proletarian state”, is it possible that Gallimard’s lover is her identity at all? Furthermore, the film asks, could “she” ever choose the assigned identity as the result of her metamorphosis, or is she helpless as a butterfly to alter an inescapable destiny?
Identity crises pervade even the background of the film. One clear analogy is when Gallimard witnesses a Red Guard demonstration. Chinese suited in uniforms and chanting together burn the traditional, oriental garb of the opera that complemented the artistry and expression of the pre-Cultural Revolution China. In another instance, Gallimard’s companion in a Paris bar whines about left-wing French students, “all playing at being Chinese communists.” When Gallimard goes to see the mob for himself, there are obvious contradictions in identity between the future leaders of the Western world supporting the movements of the Far East while being fought by the institution of their own home.
Gallimard’s roles throughout various scenes of the film include: lord and master, rescuer and protector, white devil, accountant, heterosexual man, potentially homosexual man, foreigner, culturally literate, a carnal man, a tender father-to-be, and the list goes on. Back in Paris, Gallimard remarks, “China was different, I was different.” And it seems that the borders of China served as the walls of his cocoon during metamorphosis. As such, it was inevitable that he be expelled from those walls and forced to emerge as one identity. Again, experimenting with identities, according to the film, is a purely temporary escape from the harsh reality of what you are to be. Before his arrest, it seems that he has been living with a stagnant non-identity. He stands symbolically at the intersection of French student communists and the modern French society completely unaware of where he fits. Seeing no end to this inner struggle, he eventually finds that the only path to reconciliation is suicide.
In the end, neither Gallimard nor Song can exist with multiple facets of an identity. Gallimard eventually loses all hope of creating his own unique identity when he discovers that “what [he] loved was a lie, a perfect lie, that has been destroyed.” Song on the other hand, has always truly belonged to just one identity—that of a man serving his country above all else. His undressing seems to be a vain attempt to also keep the false identity that he practiced so often. However, because there is no way to figuratively undress oneself to expose a pure and honest identity, his attempt falls flat and the woman created by a man ceases to exist.
In conclusion, M. Butterfly depressingly concludes that while humans can toy with their own identity, they ultimately must have only one or perish altogether.
Use of Cinematography to Depict the Foreign Caucasian in China
As professor Hiroshi Kitamura pointed out in both his lecture and book, Screening Enlightenment, more than just the script and physical actions of a film should be analyzed in order to fully understand a film. Many aspects of the current social culture, state of the film industry, and the use of cinematography all play important roles in fully realizing a movie and its message. One such lens that can be used to analyze David Cronenburg’s M. Butterfly is that of cinematography. The manner in which certain scenes are shot, along with the message being given by that scene, are key aspects of any film. Many of M. Butterfly’s most important messages can be drawn from several scenes throughout the movie that highly resemble scenes from other Chinese oriented films that were conveying a similar message, such as The Bitter Tea of General Yen and The World of Suzie Wong. These important messages include depicting the white protagonist as a foreigner in an unfamiliar world, the protagonist in a nearly entirely white party/luxury setting, the protagonist as having acclimatized to the previously unfamiliar world, and lastly, the protagonist’s sadness at his lover’s former home.
One of the most immediate messages from the film sent to the audience is that of a ‘stranger in a strange land.’ The target audiences for these three films can be assumed to be the standard white Christian American. As such, the film intends to have the audience identify with the protagonist’s feeling of ‘not belonging’ and be swept away in a massive faceless current of the Chinese crowds. This is seen in the opening scenes of all three movies: Megan (The Bitter Tea of General Yen) sits in a stuck rickshaw while crowds of Chinese people try to flee the city during the violent struggles between two warring Chinese generals, Robert (The World of Suzie Wong) aimlessly wanders the Hong Kong streets looking for a hotel where he can stay, and René (M. Butterfly) walks along a crowded Beijing road with a coworker of his. All of these scenes include mixes of far and full shots to include the large numbers of Chinese extras that flow through the scene, drowning out and losing the white characters in the crowd.
In order to drive home the difference between the Caucasian protagonist and their foreign surroundings, we also see examples from all three movies of the protagonists at a large, usually extravagant gathering for all of the various white people living in the nearby area. In these scenes, if we see any Chinese people on screen, they are either a main character (such as Suzie) or a servant/subordinate of lower status to all the whites in attendance. In The Bitter Tea of General Yen, there are several scenes of the ‘marriage’ party being thrown for Megan and her fiancé, while Robert eats at a fancy restaurant in The World of Suzie Wong, and René goes to a party for all the various embassy workers. These scenes reinforces the feeling of difference by showing the white characters in a sort of ‘self-induced seclusion’ where they have to throw their own parties and dinners instead of going out into their respective Chinese cities/towns to mix and mingle with the general populous.
Over the course of the movie, the white protagonist ends up discovering an intriguing Chinese love interest who they must court and come to the realization that they are falling into a relationship that is viewed with contempt by fellow whites of the time. In this process, they invariably become more comfortable with Chinese culture, and this aspect is shown in the films by the character comfortably navigating the previously foreign city and acting more like a native citizen rather than a wide-eyed tourist. In The World of Suzie Wong, Robert, in his search for Suzie, quickly travels through many twisting and busy streets that are half road and half natural rock and grass to arrive at her house. A portion of the city that would normally be confusing to an outsider is now familiar ground to Robert as he comfortably travels to and from Suzie’s cottage. As for René in M. Butterfly, there is a scene where René is biking across the countryside at night when he runs into a large procession of Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. The movement was very violent against anything that was deemed threatening to the new Chinese identity, such as traditional artists, merchants, intellectuals, and especially foreigners. René simply continues to ride his bike through the middle of the crowd and into the city, where a large pile of colorful clothes and luxury items are being burned. He is then shown parking his bike and going to watch Chinese theater. It can be assumed that the average foreigner in China would not feel as at-ease in such a time of turmoil if they were not acclimated to Chinese society.
Lastly, in continuing with the white protagonist’s character arc of the film, the Caucasian lead’s Chinese love interest has disappeared and the protagonist feels a great amount of sorrow. M. Butterfly manages to portray this scene in almost exactly the same manner as The World of Suzie Wong: with a scene of the protagonist returning to his love’s former home only to find that not only does she no longer live there, but that an entirely new family has replaced her. The audience empathizes with the protagonist and understands his pain as he realizes that his love may be gone forever, and that the world will continue to move on, replacing a previously familiar setting with a now different and unfamiliar Chinese home.