Movie Review, Shunji Iwai

Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) by Shunji Iwai

Original Name: Suwarôteiru

Director:  Shunji Iwai

Debut at: Sep 1996 (148 min)

Country: Japan (Japanese/ English/ Mandarin)

IMDB Link:

I come across another hard one to crack, Swallowtail Butterfly by Shunji Iwai. It’s more that the film helps altering my own perspective towards his works (which I will discuss in more details when I do his filmography’s write-up). It’s the film where his distinctive styles are most vibrant (so far), for better or for worse – in fact, many critics hate his styles, but somehow it still grabs me in a way other films can’t. Swallowtail Butterfly is about the people in Yentown in a grim futurist near-future where yen becomes the most powerful currency, which allows the influx of immigrants (mostly Chinese and Western) to the city. Its first strength is the Yentown settings itself, which lies somewhere along the lines with the hopelessness future of Children of Men and the smell of dirt and chaos of passengers who lived in last cabin in Snowpiercer. Iwai makes this settings more realistic by casting international actors who switch between Japanese, English and Mandarin with easy. The handheld camera approach and the rapid editing contribute to the fast pace, messy air of the Yentown’s citizen and promote a sense of rapid speed and youthful vigor. It’s the place where money is squeezed in every opportunity, where nameless people come and go and nameless corpses keep piling up each passing day. The lives of those people already feel small and fragile.

The story revolves around Ageha (played marvously by Ayumi Ito), Gilco (Chara) and Fei Hong (Hiroshi Mikami) and their rise and fall, union and separation, all within the film’s two and a half hour length. Swallowtail dumps lots of subplots, introduces dozen of other characters, and sometimes deal with some plot threads within minutes, but here’s the thing: Iwai fuses those various moods and tones, as well as various genres seamlessly. It shouldn’t have worked the way in one moment we have Gilco sings “My Way” on stage in full performance, followed by the gang members shooting each other, yet somehow the threads remain consistent. It jumbles a lot between different characters, yet somehow the emotional core is still there. They way Swallowtail addresses the power of money and the cast’s attitude towards it is also consistent. At one point, because of the money our main cast has an opportunity to leave that petty lives behind, yet in the end, they’re the true “Third culture kids”, the people for Yentowns.

There’s so much about this film, yet also there’s little to talk about, because at heart this film doesn’t make any over riding message or even any moment to reflect. It’s partly about the power of currency that leads people astray, it’s partly about the identity of these immigrants, it’s also about the growing bond between them and it does say something about the multi-culture, but at the end none of this doesn’t really matter. In one of its most memorable (and highly saturated) flashback, Ageha, while receives a tattoo in her chest (signifies her maturity, by the way), recalls the first time she sees a butterfly. As the little girl who stays in the bathroom closes the window to keep the butterfly from flying out, it crushes the poor thing, one of its wing falls into the girl’s chest. Then she questions if she was the little girl, or the butterfly. It’s the same reading to the whole movie. It’s one of the film where any deeper reading in the meaning is immaterial. It’s not necessary a character study (many of them don’t develop that much), but it leaves me a lasting emotion: that I feel like I understand those characters and their lives, and that I don’t feel it drags in any moment. Swallowtail starts with a funeral and ends with a funeral. It starts with the power of money, it ends with the cast burning the full luggage of cash away. The life then goes full circle.

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