WOMAN CHASING THE BUTTERFLY OF DEATH (1978)
Director: Kim Ki-young
Run time: 1h 57m
Review by Trevor Treharne
Brimming with stunningly shot surrealism, this is a madcap tale which descends into fear-filled views of death, disease and resurrection
Sometimes a film comes along so bonkers, you suspect it is trying to turn you insane. Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death, sometimes titled Killer Butterfly, is such a film, but it also a wonderfully framed and utterly enthralling journey from master director Kim Ki-young.
It is dream-like, psychedelic and proudly bizarre throughout. At every turn, it seems the most peculiar option is always assumed, and it is better for doing so.
“We are all promised death as soon as we are born,” says a father to his sick daughter, in a less than reassuring statement, but the source of most of the film’s fearful energy is Young-gul (Kim Man), a depressed student.
Young-gul manages to encounter a series of obscure characters, starting with a picnicking woman who takes her own life while trying to trick him to do the same.
He then encounters a pushy book seller who obsesses about his strong will to live, something that does prove hard to break. After encountering a resurrected female corpse keen on eating his liver, he starts to work with an archaeologist (Namkoong Won) and his unstable artist daughter (Kim Ja-ok).
The work consists of studying human skulls, but there is a sinister source to the subjects, while Young-gul and the daughter grow closer as we head towards the film’s disorientating and bizarre conclusion.
When films are this strange there is a danger of all meaning being lost and the film becoming convoluted and distracted. With Director Kim at the helm this was never destined to happen, regardless of how weird matter grew.
Kim uses plenty of those sweeping slide shots, perhaps most famously used to great effect in his magnum opus The Housemaid (1960) where we switch between Myung-sook's bedroom and the piano room. Another returning stylistic element are the stairs. Here the house’s stairs are slates with openings between each step. Kim uses that opening to frame the various characters, sometimes providing a focused frame around their anguished faces.
The most stunning element of the film are the colours. Rich primary colours beaming off the screen, shining alongside the darker shades of the film and its themes. There is a superb digital restoration from Mondo Macabro available that enables that colour palette to be afforded the full effect.
The film is beyond genre categorisation (our holistic ‘drama’ category is a cop-out), it is a melodrama, with sprinklings of horror and even some romantic. The broader category which holds the film together is fear. The fear of death, of suffering, of disease. The fear of the eternal blackness that awaits us on the other side of life.
There is also a comic element which runs throughout, especially when the book seller keeps refusing to die, eventually arriving as a talking skeleton.
The effects largely hold up well. It is clear to see how they are achieved – including a talking detruncated head with the actor sitting under the table – but considering the surrealist nature of these events you still stay within the moment.
Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death is a rare cinematic wonder. So strange it should be committed to an asylum, so entertaining it must be watched.
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