The Butterfly Lovers (2004) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • The Butterfly Lovers (2004) is an animated re-telling of the classical Chinese story of two lovers, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. Zhu Yingtai was a girl born into an upper-class family during China's Eastern Jin Dynasty. Since women were not allowed to attend school, she begged her family to let her go, and they consented as long as she pretended to be a young man. There she met a handsome young upper-class man named Liang Shanbo. They instantly became friends and vowed to be sworn brothers forever. Yingtai hid her real identity from "Brother Liang" through the three years they studied together at Hangzhou. Her love for him grew to consume her, and she thought of nothing else but spending all of her days with Brother Liang.

    However, after a time Yingtai's mother began to send letters to her, asking her to come home. At the fifth letter, Yingtai relented and planned to tell Brother Liang her real identity before she left school. A wealthy rival, Ma Wen Tsai, who suspected Yingtai's real identity the whole while, snuck up on Yingtai as she was confessing her identity to Brother Liang. Alas, it was only Ma Wen Tsai hiding in the bushes, waiting to hear whatever Yingtai had to say. He told her then that he would marry her, and that she should give up any dreams of marrying Liang Shanbo.

    After another confession to the real Liang, Liang and Yingtai promise one another that they will be together forever, this time as man and wife. When Yingtai arrives home, she is shocked to find that Ma Wen Tsai is already there with his wealthy and influential father. They pressure Yingtai and her family into a marriage to the Ma family, with Master Ma threatening calamity upon the Zhu family and Liang Shanbo if Yingtai does not comply. She is given three days to decide. Yingtai resigns to the marriage in order to save her family and the man she loves more than anything else in the world.

    Liang Shanbo hurries to Zhu Yingtai's home after a word of advice from the school's master's wife. When he gets there, he is shocked to find that Yingtai seems cold and aloof. Yingtai's ploy does not work, as her faithful servant confesses to Liang Shanbo what Zhu Yingtai will not: that she is only rebuffing him because she fears for what might happen to him if the two were to stay together. Liang, brokenhearted, bids farewell to his lover and leaves Yingtai's home. After his departure, Yingtai discovers that Liang has become sick with grief and has spit up blood upon a parchment. She hurries after him, only to be denied egress from her home by the guards the Ma family has set there.

    Enter Ma Wen Tsai and his three thugs once more. In spite of Liang Shanbo's weakened condition, Ma Wen Tsai has him beaten severely and his servant bound in order that he may not help his master. Liang Shanbo is carried home where he dies. Liang's servant shows up later with a token once given to Brother Liang by Yingtai. There is nothing left for her in the world. Spying her wedding dress in a mirror, Yingtai carefully dons it and becomes "the most beautiful bride" for Liang's sake. But instead of marrying Ma Wen Tsai, she makes a long trek to Liang Shanbo's grave where she accuses him of being selfish for departing the world without her as they had a promise to be together forever. A light appears. While Yingtai weeps, Liang Shanbo appears and smiles at her, offering her a hand. They caress, and, symbolically, they marry in the light shining down from the heavens.

    Both lovers disappear in front of witnesses: the two servants, Master Zhu and his wife, and Ma Wen Tsai and his father. After much weeping, the light appears again. This time, flowers and vines begin to grow from the grave of Liang Shanbo. From two peonies are hatched a pair of butterflies, like those painted on the silk scarf token that Yingtai had given to Liang. The butterflies whirl together, a light following them which produces the flowers and trees of springtime all around the observers, in spite of the autumn season. The butterflies vanish, and for a moment the images of the two lovers (now joined together in eternal death) is seen by the onlookers who bid them a teary farewell.

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