The “M. Butterfly” Effect

  • Photo by Photo courtesy of The Best Play

    Jung Dong-hwa as Song Liling in the Korean revival of “M. Butterfly.” Photo courtesy of The Best Play

  • Photo by Photo courtesy of The Best Play

    This question of self-deception unfolds on the set of “M. Butterfly” at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. Photo courtesy of The Best Play

  • Photo by Photo courtesy of The Best Play

    Actors Kim Young-min (Gallimard) and Jung Dong-hwa (Song Liling) in the Korean revival of “M. Butterfly.” Photo courtesy of The Best Play

One confused night I decided to go out to Itaewon, a place I had come to avoid out of habit. I was meeting a friend, a Korean guy who had recently come out of the closet at a “Nordic lounge” that just looked like any vampy bar on 8th avenue in Chelsea. When I arrived, the group was split between those who could speak English and those who could not. He sat with his date and a couple of other friends at the latter table, and I, much to my chagrin, was seated with the former.

There was a mix of foreigners and English-speaking Koreans—among them a young Korean boy. I say boy because he told me he was “18 years old,” but did not specify whether this meant “Korean age” or “regular age.” He then told me, unsolicited, that he had a boyfriend, a 52-year-old white man who lived in L.A. and then, without any cut of irony, that the man was the exact same age as his father.

“M. Butterfly” is a play about the allure and the pitfalls of racial fantasies.

Oftentimes when I take in information that I find confusing or uncomfortable, I take a beat too long to process it. Everything unravels in my brain like a slow-motion 100-plus car pileup on the freeway, with each subsequent detail careening into the next until I am left trying to piece together what just happened. This confusion/abjection usually plays out across my face, and is one of the reasons why I am a terrible liar.

That is a snapshot of what occurred inside my head as this 18, maybe 17, possibly 16-year-old boy told me about his 52-year-old father-boyfriend. I looked at him: he was skinny and small and cute as a button, which of course, just made everything more upsetting. I managed a question.

“So, L.A.?” I stated/asked.

He nodded, and told me, in halting, thickly accented English that his boyfriend would see him when he visited Seoul. He then pulled out his smartphone and showed me a blurry photo of a tall, pudgy white man at what looked like a house party. I smiled and nodded and quietly focused on my drink.

The years separating myself and this teenager, while few, felt like a wide, endless chasm. I thought back to my 16-year-old self, a young Korean-American boy living in a small town in Florida who thought that New York was everything. White men. Freedom. Possibility. I had a fantasy of New York, of what I could do, who I would meet and who I could become. It took years of disappointment before I realized that a fantasy was a place inside your head, and that no matter how hard you tried, you could never reach it. 

I didn’t need to ask this young, teenage boy any other questions. I already knew the answers.

***

So does Rene Gallimard, the protagonist of David Henry Hwang’s classic American play, “M. Butterfly.”

“M. Butterfly” is a play about the allure and the pitfalls of racial fantasies. Inspired by a news brief Hwang had read in The New York Times, the play is about a French diplomat, Rene Gallimard, stationed at the embassy in Beijing who falls in love with a Chinese opera singer by the name of Song Liling. She reminds him of his favorite Puccini opera, “Madama Butterfly.” He and Song have a 20-year affair that ends when the French government arrests them for espionage. It is in the courtroom when Gallimard learns that his lover had not only been a spy, but also a biological man. The last part really stuck in people’s craw. The judge, the French, all wanted to know: how could you not know?

This question of self-deception unfolds on the set of “M. Butterfly” here in Seoul—a giant bisected birdcage encased by soaring wooden beams arching towards a central apex—at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. It is as though Gallimard (played by Kim Young-min [김영민]) split open his skull to lay bare the four-and-a-half by five meter prison cell of his present situation next to the memories of his boyhood in Aix-en-Provence and 1960s Beijing, which have brought him there. 

Photo courtesy of The Best Play

The center of his fixation, and the most compelling figure of the play, is the opera diva, Song Liling (played by Jung Dong-hwa [정동화]). But the woman Gallimard meets is, like his memories, a phantasm. His Butterfly. His geisha. The woman who will weather abandonment and betrayal for the man she loves, until finally, she commits seppuku, because she would rather be dead than without her man. This is the story Gallimard falls in love with: a story of “pure sacrifice,” the promise that only an Oriental woman can make.

This is a mistake that Song uses to his advantage. According to Song, men play the female parts in the Pekinese opera because “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” That is how Song becomes both everything that Gallimard ever wanted, and nothing at all. Song is a feat of production, a woman created by a man.

The Korean production hews close to original stage notes of this classic work of American theater, but it is impossible not to compare it to the original run, which featured John Lithgow as Gallimard and a then-unknown B.D. Wong as Song almost a quarter of a century prior. Wong’s own performance (you can see even in this short but wonderful clip) exposes the weaknesses of the Korean version. His voice lilted and seduced. It flickered, turning coy, bombastic or mysterious at the spike of an octave, a shift in pitch. Above all, he was funny, and his humor sharpened what can be very dense and heavy-handed material. (You can listen to an audio version of the original actors here.)

In short, he interprets Song’s indecipherability as impenetrable rather than mercurial; he withdraws when he should expand.

Whereas Kim fills the role of Gallimard with the necessary yearning and desperation, Jung’s Song is too serious. As a woman, he is stiff and ungainly, devoid of the lithe, chimerical femininity evident in the text. As a man he lacks swagger. In short, he interprets Song’s indecipherability as impenetrable rather than mercurial; he withdraws when he should expand. He is not a woman with whom the audience falls in love.

It is an interesting decision to stage what is a very Asian-American play in Korean. Obviously, certain nuances are changed in translation. The Korean script replaces the word “love” with yokmang (욕망) or “desire”—so that it is desire, rather than love, that tricks and seduces Gallimard into falling for Song. The play also blunts some of the overt sexuality of the work. Where the original text calls for Song to be completely naked in the climactic “reveal,” our Song leaves us wanting in a pair of briefs. (Although there was an audible tremor that shuddered throughout the audience when Jung flashed his six-pack abs.)

Photo by Sonja Swanson for Seoulist

Admittedly, it was strange to watch this play about interracial relations in Korean, and to see the roles of Gallimard and other French people played by Koreans. “You know, back in my parents’ generation, they would put on wigs and makeup when they played Westerners,” said Kim Young-min, the actor who plays Gallimard. I had lurked around the back entrance hoping to talk with him about the play and his performance. “Now it’s up to the power of the performer.”

Context hadn’t been lost, merely shifted. “The play looks at how the West views the Orient,” said Kim over an Americano and a cigarette. “It’s a work that allows us to look at the West, the East, and ultimately, ourselves.”

Indeed, Gallimard does not need to be French, nor Song Chinese. Running underneath the play is a commentary on the French pullout in Vietnam and the subsequent American debacle. The Korean War can easily become a stand-in for the Vietnam War, and the U.S for France. Gallimard and Song are metaphors for the broader political theater between the East and the West. In an interview with the Guthrie Theater in 2010, Hwang talked about the relevance of his work today. “The West has at least for the last three or four centuries considered itself more powerful than the East,” he said. “And a lot of the times the way that the West has looked at the East has been parallel to the way men look at women.”

“And a lot of the times the way that the West has looked at the East has been parallel to the way men look at women.”

This is a perspective that Hwang believes has shaped our consciousness on everything from foreign policy to love. “Sometimes we then model our lives or make decisions, whether it’s political or personal, based on those kinds of templates,” said Hwang.

The real question is not “how did Gallimard not know,” but rather, how do our perceptions of race and gender, body and size, affect our relationships? How do they limit what we consider desirable or attractive—the ideal man or woman?

***

It was 3 a.m. and Homo Hill, more familiarly called “the Hill,” teemed with people. Earlier that day, the Queer Cultural Festival had held a gay pride parade, but the mass descent into Itaewon indicated that this was the real festivity. I had been spending a relaxed night drinking beer on the terrace of a new guesthouse along the Han River before some friends called me out to Itaewon. I couldn’t miss Korea’s night of pride.

We went into Queen, a bar towards the mouth of the alley mostly known for its dancing. It is a popular place with expats. It is also where you go if you are a white guy looking for a Korean guy, and vice versa. As we filed in, a stream of men were exiting. One of them, a tall white man with thinning hair, blocked my entrance. I maneuvered to the side and he dove for my lips, like a pelican scooping up a fish. His face hit my palm.

Inside, a cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the dancefloor. One of the bartenders played remixes of Beyonce, Rihanna, 4 Minute. In the center of the space is a white leather divan that had been ripped and scuffed from years of zealous dancers clambering on top of it. Tonight was no different and there was a Korean guy pinballing between different white men on it. He was making out heavily with one of them, his back arched as the other man put one hand down the back of his pants, pulling down his underwear. My friend smirked at the spectacle and said that it might be time to get a room.

I saw his face and I realized that I knew him. He was a Korean-American I had met a few months back. He told me over barbecue in a voice that expected understanding that he only liked white guys. He told me he wasn’t sure if he and his boyfriend, a white guy with salt-and-pepper hair, were going to stay together. The boyfriend lived in Chicago, and the distance seemed insurmountable.

He asked me, didn’t I also like white guys? He said this in a way that spoke of camaraderie—an expectation I still have trouble adjusting to. I shrugged and said that I didn’t care much either way.

His eyes were big and round. “Really?” he asked. He couldn’t believe it.

“I just think white guys are so sexy,” he said, breathlessly. “You don’t think so?”

M. Butterfly plays through June 6. Running time: 110 minutes. Tickets 40–60,000 won from Interpark (English site). By David Henry Hwang, directed by Kim Gwang-bo. WITH: Kim Young-min as Gallimard, Jung Dong-hwa alternating with Kim Da-hyun as Song Liling, Son Jin-hwan as M. Toulon, Jung Su-yeong as Helga, Han Dong-kyu as Marc and Lee So-hee as Comrade Chin. (Note: This review was based on a performance with Jung Dong-hwa.)

We think it’s worthwhile to see plays in Korean even if you aren’t fluent, but it wouldn’t hurt to pick up a copy of the play from Kyobo.

Alex Jung

About Alex Jung

Alex is a writer who calls both New York and Seoul home. His writing has appeared in Salon, The Morning News, and Yonhap, among other publications. He is obsessed with the highbrow, the lowbrow, and the very lowbrow.

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