Madam Butterfly fails to take off

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 1993, 12:00am

MISS BUTTERFLY, with Law Wai-kuen, Wilson Lam Chun-yin, Miu Kiu-wai and Tung Oi-ling. Directed by Lam Fai-wong. On Empire circuit.

APOSTER currently plastering the walls of Hongkong features a half-dressed young woman brandishing a broken bottle, a butterfly tattoo adorning her bare shoulder as she glares angrily at the world.

This is Cat (Law Wai-kuen), and the poster pretty much sums up Miss Butterfly - except that in the film, the tattoo is on her chest.

Cat has plenty of reasons to be angry: her father's gambling debts have forced her to become a car thief; gangsters treat her like a punch bag; and her boyfriend has fallen in love with somebody else.

Above all, Cat should be angry at screenwriters who foist on her the same sensationalistic, sexist cliches that have dogged ''bad girls'' in innumerable crime pictures. Not the least of these are a foul mouth that masks a heart of gold, and clothes that revealingly rip to shreds at the slightest provocation.

For all that, the film opens in a novel manner. An early sequence takes place in mainland China and depicts two cadres ''shopping'' for a luxury car. A smuggler from Hongkong shows them some photos, and the Guangdong officials place their orders. Back inthe territory, Cat steals the requested vehicle.

In this respect, the film is bold. For as despicable as Cat's profession and reprehensible as the triads who manipulate her are, they are all at the beck and call of their customers: corrupt government officers from across the border.

Though the theme may sound true-to-life, Miss Butterfly is more fantasy than reality. There is the usual quota of high speed chases, blood-letting, and pyrotechnics, ending in a car-smashing sequence.

The film's most thought-provoking moment, however, is provided by a mistranslated English subtitle. The New Territories town of Sai Kung and the former Ho Chi Minh City share the same Chinese name. So when the gang leader barks out an order that is translated as ''Drive the car to Saigon'', one wonders if the film-makers are suggesting a new communist market for car smugglers.

Maybe there is even a market there for smuggled copies of Miss Butterfly.