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(left) Lee Bing-Bing, and (right) Vic Chou in Linger

Chinese: 蝴蝶飛  
Year: 2008
Director: Johnnie To Kei-Fung  
Producer: Johnnie To Kei-Fung, Tsui Siu-Ming
Writer: Ivy Ho
Cast: Vic Chou, Li Bingbing, Wong Yau-Nam, You Yong, Lam Suet, Maggie Siu Mei-Kei, Roy Cheung Yiu-Yeung, Mia Yam
The Skinny:

Despite a sometimes clever script, Linger has a hard time affecting, and proves to be more interminable than interesting. A disappointing effort from Johnnie To, and proof that even the greatest directors don't always bring their A-game.

by Kozo:

Johnnie To is arguably Hong Kong's best director currently working - which is why it's disappointing that his latest, Linger, is an unimpressive film. To seems to handle this romantic drama with cement gloves, and despite the presence of many cast and crew members from To's previous celebrated works, the film struggles to affect. But the blame isn't all on Johnnie To. Screenwriter Ivy Ho (Comrades, Almost a Love Story) should shoulder some responsibility, and the very nature of the production is a bit puzzling. Let's see: it features leads from the Mainland and Taiwan, it's set in very Hong Kong-specific locations, the supporting cast is pretty much all Hong Kong, and yet the film was largely shot in Mandarin to suit the language abilities of the leads. That means they sound like themselves, but all the supporting actors don't, because they were dubbed into Mandarin in post. That is, unless you see the Cantonese dub, in which case all the supporting actors sound like themselves, but the leading actors don't sound like themselves at all. Also, the characters aren't particularly likable, and the film itself is only a shade away from boring. Just why did they make this movie?

Vic Chou becomes the last member of JVKV (AKA: the boy band formerly known as F4) to make his big-screen debut with Linger. Chou plays Dong, a basketball-playing student who gets into a fiery argument with his girlfriend Yan (Lee Bing-Bing) before she rips off his basketball jersey, throws it on the ground, and drives away in a huff. He follows on his motorcycle, Moment of Romance-style, only to bite it in a vehicular smash 'em up that sends him to an early grave. Cut to three years later and Yan is a distracted law assistant by day, and a full-on wreck by night. Since the accident, she's suffered from psychological problems. Her nights are plagued by visions of Dong, and Yan has been taking drugs for sleep, depression, or possibly both. However, even after quitting her pills, she still has visions of Dong, who usually appears acting intense, forlorn, and even a little smarmy. His big question is if Yan really loved him or not. Or is that really what he seeks? And if not, why does Dong keep showing up? Is he just a construct of Yan's guilty conscience, or is he really a restless spirit looking to tie up loose ends?

The answer: unknown. In a move that likely clears Linger for Mainland Chinese distribution, there is no clear-cut answer as to what's really going on with Yan. The Mainland Chinese censors have long been leery of the supernatural, so making Dong's appearance drug-induced seems like a good way to get this supernatural drama into the Mainland multiplexes. The downside is that the mystery of his appearance is subdued, and after some initial freaking out by Yan, there appears to be little or no tension attached to Dong's comings-and-goings. Johnnie To develops things in a dull fashion; instead of involving the audience with the situation, he just puts things out there gradually, bypassing character identification for numerous scenes of people talking about their feelings. Also, the characters aren't terribly likable; when we first meet the couple, they're in bed, after which they're fighting and then one of them promptly dies. The happiness or emotion that gives their relationship value is only introduced later via flashback, but by then, the characters have failed to charm. Vic Chou and Lee Bing-Bing have little chemistry in the lead roles, and are only convincing as people we wouldn't necessarily want to know in real life.

That is, until the ending, when both look a lot better thanks to flashback reveals and some decent storytelling sleight-of-hand. Ivy Ho's script finds some poignancy in Dong's relationship with his estranged father (You Yong), and Yan's involvement with a troublesome triad (Wong Yau-Nam, in an amusing, though somewhat inexplicable supporting turn) makes for some decent romantic tension. There are moments in Ivy Ho's script where it appears that she's reaching for something unsaid. Some plot clues smartly hint at unrevealed relationships or connections, but the script never brings these details to fruition. Some characters play seemingly integral roles, only to disappear from the film after they've served their purpose. What purpose is that? Simply to bring Yan and Dong closer to some form of closure, but the actors and filmmakers never convince us that this outcome is necessarily desirable. Lee Bing-Bing is convincingly troubled, but never truly earns sympathy, and Vic Chou, while possessing decent presence, never creates a complete character. Their relationship isn't star-crossed or heartrending, and neither actor earns the catharsis an emotionally charged ending would bring.

What does all this mean? Maybe that Johnnie To shouldn't try straight drama, or that he flounders when not flexing his trademark style or wit. Either that, or Ivy Ho's script is more self-important than fully developed. Linger is a film largely sold on its content and not on cinematic familiarity, e.g., Johnnie To's deadpan absurdity (which does get a little, though not a lot of play here) or the usual motley crew of Milkyway Image players. People like Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, and Maggie Siu do show up, but the familiarity offered by their appearances only distracts. It's hard to immerse yourself in a romantic drama when you're playing "spot the Milkyway actor" on the side. That said, even if the Milkyway cast had not been present, it's doubtful if Linger would have been that successful. It certainly tries to tell an emotional, fully-realized tale of love and loss, but something about the whole thing feels unreal and unsatisfying. Despite taking place in Hong Kong, the film doesn't really feel like it, and the filmmakers never manage the most minimal leap: to make the characters and drama matter to the audience. Since there's nothing else besides the actors and their moping to occupy the audience, the result is disappointment, or even a restless boredom. It's safe to say that everyone involved here has done better work. Especially Johnnie To. (Kozo 2007)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Kam & Ronson
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

images courtesy of Sundream Motion Pictures Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen