Butterfly In Grey (2002)

Directed by
Lesbians in prison
Reviewed by Simon on 2005-03-21

Women, eh?  Can’t live with ‘em, can’t look ‘em up in prison without them having lesbian sex. On second thoughts, that statement may be more about movies than it is about women - can’t make a film about women in prison without a lesbian sex scene.  Even a fairly artsy, fairly feminist film like BUTTERFLY IN GREY has one, though it doesn’t involve the main character.  In fact, despite spending half her life in prison and half living in a brothel, she doesn’t visibly have sex with animal or mineral.  And yes, I’m aware there is traditionally a third entry in that list :p

BUTTERFLY IN GREY is an interesting film...  despite some sex and violence it’s clearly not an exploitation film - it’s really the tale of a woman who leads an interesting and independent life.  The film begins with her funeral, where her son (whose existence proves there must have been some sex in her life, though we never know who it’s with) admits to her friends that he really doesn’t know much about his mother.  As luck would have it, she’d written an autobiographical novel though, so he reads it.  The rest of the film picks out details from her life, presumably as her son reads about them.  He seems to be a bit of a page-flipper, as the story is told non-linearly, though there’s just a couple of chronological leaps to throw the narrative out of order - a device that weakens the film more than it adds interest, unfortunately. It does mean that the film is sure to withstand (and benefit from) a second viewing, though.

As well as the main character Dow, author of the book that gives the film its name, we get to learn about several of the women that play an important role in her life. Some of these she meets in prison, some she meets at the brothel where she moves after her release (and where she writes her book). The women have different reasons for being where they are, and none of them are portrayed as victims – though the iniquities of men have played a role in several of their lives. All of them are strong, intelligent and above all independent women.

The story spans quite a few years, but sampled sparsely. In some parts, Dow is more of a background character, chronicling the lives of those around her. The film is directed confidently without being flashy or overbearing. Cinematography is good, but again does not take front stage. The focus is on the characters and the acting, which is uniformly excellent. In particular two of the characters seem to be channeling Shu Qi at her most bubbly and Anita Mui at her most mature. I don’t recognize any of the cast, but I’d definitely like to see them again.

BUTTERFLY IN GREY is not an earth-moving or ground-breaking film, but it’s a well made drama with a number of different facets that make it interesting. The leaps in time are a little disconcerting, making a first viewing less impressive than it ought to be – it wasn’t until I was scanning through the disc taking screen captures afterwards that I pieced it all together and got a full appreciation of it. I do recommend giving it a chance.


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Also known as

  • Khang paed