M Butterfly (1993)

February 21st, 2003  |  Published in Uncategorized

M Butterfly started life as a reasonably successful Broadway production written by David Henry Hwang. The play concerned itself with the sorts of issues raised by Edward Said’s presentation of “Orientalism”. As a play, it succeeded in creating a largely internal dialogue in which the main character, a French diplomat in China, attempts to create his own Madame Butterfly fantasy with a Chinese actor he believes is a woman.

The story the play grew from is true, sort of. In the 1960’s, a French diplomat in China maintained a decades-spanning relationship with a Chinese actor. They had a few sexual encounters over a very short period of time. He was convinced the actor was a woman. He was convinced the actor had borne him a son. He was ultimately convicted of espionage when it turned out the actor was also a spy. It’s reported that the diplomat insisted his “Butterfly” was a woman, not merely in chosen gender but in physiology, right up until he was actually shown the actor’s penis. Setting aside the slippery language of transgender issues, the obvious question raised by many was “How did he have a sixteen-year-long relationship with the actor without realizing he was involved with a man?”

Hwang’s play uses that essential question as a resonant invitation to recurse through the comments made by characters passing in and out of the diplomat’s memory. Ultimately, and considered in the context of Said’s notions about Orientalism, the question is something of a misdirection. It’s never meant to be answered directly. The play itself is a running commentary on the only possible answer: blinded by his vision of an exotic, inscrutable, picture-perfect state of chinese-ness, the diplomat created a perceptual schema where his lover couldn’t be anything but a woman. Within the dictates of that schema, the diplomat locked himself, as Said says Orientalism requires, into a binary relationship with his “Butterfly” that required he either be victim or oppressor, female or male, east or west.

Some reviewers have said the play and movie seek to prove “love is blind,” but that’s selling Hwang’s vision short. The axe he had to grind was much bigger than a mere story about an improbable couple… he was out to dismantle a feminized, mysterious “Orient” before the eyes of an audience that unconsciously participates in a collective cultural myth about what it is to be Asian.

So that brings us to the movie, directed by David Cronenberg, which he did right after his adaptation of Naked Lunch.

The play succeeded, in my opinion, because it took place inside one man’s head, and it gave audiences enough to realize that the main character is deeply delusional on a level that only makes sense if he’s viewed as a metaphor for broader cultural misperceptions. In Cronenberg’s hands, though, the action of the play is shifted out of the main character’s head and brought to life in an “authentic” and “real” China, which is just as exotic and mysterious as the stereotypes would have us believe. Essentially, Cronenberg recreates and validates the myth, rather than attempting to undermine it. The sex life of the characters in the play, never really explored or depicted, receives a couple of treatments on screen (Cronenberg is not the director to resist the impulse to do so), serving to move the story from the surreal and personal to the lurid and spectacular.

Wrong director. Wrong material. Executed in a technically competent manner if you’re into watching movies for that reason alone.

A fairly complete discussion of the “true story” behind the play and movie appeared in People.

Comments are closed.

© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.