Fri, Jun 13, 2008 - Page 18 News List

[FILM REVIEW] Butterflies and bamboo trees

Chang Tso-chi's latest film mixes the personal with the political, and the real with the fictional


Novice actors Tseng yi-che and Chen Pei-chun are well-cast but can't save an overly indulgent Soul of a Demon.


Soul of a Demon (蝴蝶), celebrated director Chang Tso-chi's (張作驥) first film in five years, almost didn't make it to the big screen. Originally envisioned as a work of magic realism aided by CGI effects, the production came to a halt when the animation production company backed out of the project. After scraping together a new budget, Chang and his team re-shot the movie one year later. The result is a sober human drama about a tormented gangster who is unable to disengage from the cycle of violence and his troubled relationship with his father.

Set in Nanfangao (南方澳), a fishing port built by the Japanese, the film begins when Che (Tseng Yi-che) returns home from jail. Che took the rap for his younger brother, Ren (Cheng Yu-ren), who had stabbed to death the son of a local mob boss.

To reconnect with his semi-Aboriginal roots, Che visits his mother’s grave in Orchid Island (蘭嶼) with his ex-girlfriend Pei (Chen Pei-chun), who is mute from past emotional trauma.

Meanwhile, Ren returns from hiding in Japan with the brothers’ father, Chang (Michio Hayashida), whose departure from the family home led to his wife’s suicide. Old hatreds erupt, and violence rears its ugly head.

The title of the film comes from the Tao (達悟) word for butterfly. Tao tribal tradition holds that at the moment of death, a person’s soul leaves their body much in the same way as butterflies flutter towards the sky.

From images of butterfly wings shimmering on bamboo trees and the deserted amusement park where Che is abandoned by his father, to a glove puppet performance on the seashore, the film creates an atmospheric world in which the troubled protagonist is eventually consumed by his past and memories.

Film Notes

Soul of a Demon(蝴蝶)

DIRECTED BY: Chang Tso-chi (張作驥)

STARRING: Tseng Yi-che (曾一哲) as Che, Chen Pei-chun (陳佩君) as Pei, Cheng Yu-ren (程毓仁) as Ren, Chan Cheng-yun (詹正筠) as Kuei

Language: in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Japanese and Tao (Yami) with Chinese subtitle



Though death, wickedness and human tragedy are motives in Chang’s work, the director’s sense of fatalism is taken to new heights in Soul of a Demon: men find no way to escape the vicious cycle of und erworld vendetta and women are either crippled, mute or dead. Chang’s Nanfangao is dismal and bleak, and suffocates the characters.

The fishing port is an ideal vehicle for Chang’s contemplative reflection on Taiwan’s history and the country’s hybrid cultural and political identities. By adding the role of Che’s grandfather, a photographer who came to Nanfangao with a Japanese construction team, to the story, Chang reveals the history of Nanfangao as one of the places where the first wave of Japanese soldiers and civil servants arrived in Taiwan. Che’s conflicts with his family, therefore, can be read as a metaphorical reference to Taiwan’s historical relationships with Japan and the nation’s Aborigines.

With the divine dancing Eight Generals (八家將) practitioners in Ah Chung (忠仔, 1996), the blind and gangsters in Darkness and Light (黑暗之光, 1999) and the deprived youth in The Best of Times (美麗時光, 2002), Chang excels in revealing the beauty and ugliness of life through the stories of social underdogs. In Soul of a Demon, the motifs are all there: gangsters, people with disabilities and a dysfunctional family. Yet the film is likely to be seen as one of Chang’s less successful pieces, since the story is oftentimes strays and becomes lost in the director’s auteurist exercise.

The film is, perhaps, like the director himself readily admits, a faithful reflection on the chaos of his life, frustrations and the passing of his father five years ago.

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