Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly is the catalyst behind this fictional version of the bizarre true story of the relationship between Bernard Borsicot, a French diplomat, and Shi Pei-Pu, a Peking opera singer. In the film and play, Bernard Borsicot becomes Rene Gallimard, a low-level accountant at a French embassy, who is promoted to head of embassy intelligence after he inadvertently ruffles some feathers among the espionage staff. The real-life Shi Pei-Pu is known as Song Liling, a singer at the Beijing opera, although the actual events took place in Peking. With a background set among the chaos of China just prior to and during the Cultural revolution, the affair between Boriscot/Gallimard and Pei-Pu/Lilang is used to frame a well-crafted and extremely well-acted story of espionage, love, betrayal, obsession and, ultimately, a dramatic reversal of the tragedy of Madama Butterfly.
Unlike some, I believe that Borsicot/Gallimard probably did not know, or certainly did not want to know, that Shi/Song was really a man. I found John Lone as Song very convincing indeed, even though as a gay man I am very used to being around transgender people, many of whom are not even remotely as credible as Mr. Lone. What is less credible is how young Song looks when she is finally revealed as a man during the brief courtroom scene, since their affair was supposed to last over 30 years, and John Lone appears to be in his late twenties during the trial scene. But this is a minor quibble; the irony of the climactic ending may be lost on anyone who is unfamiliar with the opera that the story parallels, but this does not detract from the compelling nature of the film. The supporting cast is excellent, especially Ian Richardson as the Ambassador and Barbara Sukowa as Gallimard's wife.
A word about the title, which many people refer to as "M Butterfly", as if the letter "M" were itself a word. In French, "M." is the abbreviation for "Monsieur", and the title of the film and play are properly pronounced "Monsieur Butterfly". Thus the irony of the climax is instantly comparable to the opera. Highly recommended.