Nostalgia for a Queer Romance in Butterfly
Butterfly (Yan Yan Mak, 2004) centres on the character of Flavia (Josie Ho), a high school teacher living a fairly mundane married life complete with sterile, angular apartment, husband and small child. Encountering a younger woman, Yip (Tian Yuan), in a supermarket, Flavia remembers a lost queer romance of her youth that was forcibly ended by her parents. The film follows Flavia's budding relationship with Yip in the present alongside the remembered relationship from her past in parallel yet intertwining storylines. But Butterfly does not begin with its protagonist. Before the opening credits there is a sequence consisting of three shots that establishes the film's primary thematic: a preoccupation with questions of nostalgia and memory. The first image that we see is of Flavia's lover, Yip. The first shot moves along her body as she lounges around a bedroom in her underwear, singing softly to the camera as if it were a lover. In the second shot, Yip moves to the window, gently presses her face against the glass and looks out at the city beneath her. High definition film stock captures the natural lighting of the scene, rendering palpable the intimacy of these shots. However, it is the third shot that most interests me about this sequence. Employing a contrasting Super-8 film stock, this shot both looks and sounds very different to those preceding it.
Two teenage girls hold hands as they playfully climb the steps of the Old Portuguese fort in Macau. The sun shines and the girls giggle as they run. From the top of the steps, the camera follows these girls, capturing one of them swinging her handbag vigorously as she laughs. Arriving at the top, the girls run past the camera, which continues to follow them in mid-shot from behind as they jump up and down in excitement. Then, as the girls stand together looking over the city below them, the camera approaches them before slowly moving away, capturing a view of the city before cutting to black. A nostalgic modality is established within this shot through the grainy, high-contrast aesthetic and prominence of the yellow tones within the image. It looks as if it is being nostalgically remembered by an omniscient narrator. At the edges of the frame the colours bleed into one another like the details of a memory that has faded over time. The shot is also notably quiet but it is not silent, as if being projected in an empty cinema. The first two shots establish Butterfly's narrative present but the third shot is distanced both visually and aurally from this. Is this shot a memory? If so, who does it belong to? Or, alternatively, is this a piece of footage, captured and projected within the diegetic world of the film? If so, who is filming? And perhaps more importantly, who is watching?
Regardless of its origin, what is particularly intriguing about this shot is its nostalgic modality: that is, the way that it feels as if it is gesturing backwards to some hazy but warmly remembered event of the past. Although not all memories are nostalgic, nor are all films about memory, it is almost impossible to consider the practice of remembering without also considering the concept of nostalgia. But nostalgia connotes something more than a simple remembrance of the past; it is a relation to the past that is felt rather than thought. This shot signals the film's broader exploration of these ideas alongside the depiction of a kind of queer girlhood. Discussing nostalgia as a cinematic device, Rey Chow conceptualises "the nostalgic filmic image" and discusses nostalgia alternately as "a loop, a throw, a network of chance"1 and a "wishful imagining of, or insistent gesturing back to, an originary state of togetherness."2
At this point there is a question that begs to be asked: If this shot is an example of the "nostalgic filmic image" as Chow describes, what is the "originary state of togetherness" that the film imagines? Where, or perhaps what, is the film's "loop," "throw," "network of chance" gesturing backwards to? It is significant that the idea of nostalgia emerges within this shot. This, slightly shaky, handheld shot of two teenage girls holding hands as they run up the steps of an old fort, giggle together and look out at their city. This is an image of adolescent utopia: The girls are the only two people in sight and they are carefree in this moment. When their hand-hold turns into a hug at the top of the fort there's a palpable intimacy between these characters, they are not hesitant to display their affections publicly and they look over the city as if they are its queens. It is this freedom of adolescence that the film gestures backwards to. This is a freedom in which queerness emerges as the two girls are permitted, in this moment, to publicly love each other.
But signalled through this shot is a central conflict of both the film and the concept of nostalgia. This conflict arises out of the idea that the utopian past that the nostalgic yearns for is always at a distance and therefore can never be realised in the present. Immanuel Kant suggested this when he described the nostalgic as "not straining toward something which he can repossess, but toward an age which is forever beyond his reach." Nostalgia thus may be considered as a marker of conflict between the unique freedoms of adolescence and the realities of the adult world. The film thus ties with a broader cultural phenomenon that fascinates me: when queerness is depicted as acceptable, or indeed possible, only within an ephemeral, fleeting moment of girlhood. This is often articulated within the simple expression "It's just a phase," but in some instances this is achieved through narratives that feature an older female protagonist nostalgically remembering a lost queer romance of her youth. It is this connection between nostalgia and queer girlhood that the film explores through the character of Flavia - her innocent first love paralleled and intertwined with her developing adult lesbian relationship. But it is this shot - its high-contrast Super-8 aesthetic resembling those warm nostalgic memories of the past - that captures that fleeting moment of girlhood in which anything is possible.