Yentown. Drugs, prostitution, poverty. Tramps and scavengers society has deemed undeserving of even a proper burial upon death. Immigrants, orphans and people with no identity live in Yentown. Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) was a sensation at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival and won the 1998 Fantasia Best Asian Film award. It was the start of a lovely relationship between the festival and director Shunji Iwai. This week, the same film showed at the Tokyo International Film Festival as part of the Japan Now section.

The plot, images and characters are still valid in 2016. The story is told in three languages (Chinese, English and Japanese), and follows the protagonists’ evolution in their quest for the Self and their role in society. Jump cuts and quick pans build tension in action scenes. Iwai alternates between low lighting in such moments, and saturated, warm palettes in segments more focused on dialogue.

As with Iwai’s more recent work, music plays a prominent role. Fittingly, he always casts the most quirky pop stars who’ve never been widely recognized but have a smaller, more dedicated following. As with Cocco, in A Bride For Rip Van Winkle, Chara is an appropriate choice for the role of odd but lovable hooker-turned-rockstar, Glico. Her raspy and sometimes childlike voice permeates throughout. The film’s soundtrack in fact brought Chara out of oddball art-pop and more into the mainstream.

Glico and her friends scheme their way to fame and riches. Along for the ride is young Ageha. A girl who had no name until Glico named her. A girl with no family until Glico took her under her wing. Iwai’s treatment of female relationships has always been sensitive and sweet. With Glico’s help, Ageha turns from caterpillar into butterfly. Glico and her group of outcast musician friends go through similar metamorphoses as their musical venture succeeds, and then flops. The underlying theme in Swallowtail Butterfly is about watching our dreams come true without forgetting our roots, for better or worse.

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