Considering the breadth and consistency of Tsai Ming-liang’s filmography, it’s initially hard to regard the short Madame Butterfly as much more than a curious aberration. The film is a particularly loose adaptation of Puccini’s famous opera, shot digitally and wholly devoid of the director’s trademark static compositions set against Taiwanese backdrops. Put simply, and by most standards, at the time of its release it looked nothing like what one had come to expect from a Tsai Ming-liang film. And yet, it retains his general aesthetic and thematic sensibilities as a filmmaker, positioning a sole figure played by Pearlly Chua against a crowd of largely disinterested onlookers as she wanders around a bus station in Kuala Lumpur, waiting in vain for an absentee boyfriend after discovering that she can’t afford the fare for a ride home. In terms of how the film functions as an adaptation, the relationship between the source text and Tsai’s interpretation remains somewhat murky outside of their shared titles and tragic cores. The fact that Puccini’s text is itself adapted from a short story by John Luther Long only muddles matters further, pushing the initial central narrative of a scorned Japanese housewife waiting for her American husband to come home to the point of mythological abstraction — from which Tsai’s film then draws freely upon in order to reframe the myth, to scale things back down from Puccini’s outsized dramaturgy. Nevertheless, the three-act structure of the opera is maintained by constructing the film upon three distinct shots, each of which track Chua’s path from platform to platform, from loneliness in the present to a listless malaise untethered from time.
As she meanders throughout the station, the covert handheld photography additionally lends an uneasy sense of urgency to these images, resulting from both the perpetual movement within them as well as the tension between reality and artifice in an environment in which Chua is seemingly the only person aware of the cinematic gaze.
The director’s penchant for long takes is still realized throughout, but with much more intimacy than his camera is normally afforded; Chua never feels more than an arm’s reach away, her frustration made more palpable through the claustrophobic effect of such tight framing. As she meanders throughout the station, the covert handheld photography additionally lends an uneasy sense of urgency to these images, resulting from both the perpetual movement within them as well as the tension between reality and artifice in an environment in which Chua is seemingly the only person aware of the cinematic gaze. Clerks at the ticket counter offer to let her ride the bus in spite of her insufficient fare, and yet Chua denies them, perhaps because the film requires her to remain stuck at the station, and the improvisational nature of the dialogue could not anticipate such an offering on the part of the station agents. Or perhaps their lines are scripted as well; it’s difficult to tell, but it’s also beside the point. In Tsai’s other, fully fictive films, his dejected protagonists remain effectively invisible to society, and his camera captures beautifully composed portraits of alienation and isolation from a voyeuristic perspective, highly observant but entirely inconspicuous. Here, meanwhile, though the crowds Chua moves through seem organic and the camera remains fixed on her, the passersby focus reflexively and exclusively on the camera itself, suggesting proof of Tsai’s familiar themes. Even as her distress becomes an increasingly public display, the spectacle of its documentation supersedes the understated reality of the human anguish.