Rui Cui is an incredible director who also happens to be Asian; from Beijing, China to be precise. Rather than avoid the people and cultural circumstances he knows so well, Rui used them to the benefit of his creations as any honest artist would. In addition to his directing skills, Cui brought aboard a world famous actress equipped with only the script and an explanation of his vision for the story. While most of us think of a director as someone who makes choices, it was Rui’s ability to inspire on numerous levels for this film which led to its multi-award winning recognition and mass exposure.
Cui took the spark of inspiration for the film To Pimp a Butterfly from a news story on TV. Human sex trafficking is a worldwide issue and one which sees increasing amounts of young women from southern China move to the US for prostitution, often to pay off family debts. Recognizing this high prevalence in the minority community, Rui worked with writer Xavier Burgin (a member of the African American community) to develop the script from their shared conclusion that it affects both Asian and Black communities. The goal was to create an exceptional story that would also raise awareness.
Rui understands that a talented and well known cast raises interest and awareness for a film, and he had an ideal star in mind for this one. An experienced actress in the role would simultaneously handle the complexity of the female lead character’s background and emotion, while drawing the publics’ attention to the issues he wanted to address in this film. Rui approached Bai Ling whose roles in films such as Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Spike Lee’s She Hate Me, and Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (grossing $849MM Worldwide) both proved her critical and box office value to any production. Bai Ling’s numerous awards for Best Actress from the San Diego Film Critics Society Awards, Asians On Film Festival, Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood, and Golden Horse Film Festival win for Best Supporting Actress further vetted her popularity with both American and Chinese film communities. While Bai Ling initially turned the role down, after Rui shared the script and his vision of the film with her, she conceded that her first response was too hasty and agreed to appear as Butterfly. To Pimp a Butterfly would eventually result in Bai Ling’s receipt of the award for Best Actress at 2017’s LA Shorts International Film Festival as well as numerous recognitions for Rui (Best Director - 2017 China-US Film Festival of Young Cinema, Best Director- 2017 Global Shorts), as well as Film of the Year at the 2017 China-US Film Festival of Young Cinema and an Official Selection of the 2017 Chinese American Film Festival and 2017 Asian World Film Festival.
To Pimp a Butterfly is an answer to the question of how good people get into bad situations. Connecting so many relevant issues such as poverty, crime, immigration, and the struggle of minority communities results in a revealing and compelling film. This is Andy’s story. A thirteen-year-old Asian American boy born and raised in the slums of Chinatown. Because his father abandoned the family several years ago, forcing his mother (Lam/Butterfly) to work double shifts to provide, Andy often takes care of himself and his little brother Terrence. Following Lam one night on her way to work he discovers that she is working as a prostitute; the only additional income she could find to ensure her family has food and a home as an undocumented worker. Andy takes drastic steps to alter his family’s situation, one’s which potentially place himself and his entire family in even greater danger.
The overwhelming reaction to this film’s calculated Asian-American perspective has proven the universality of its emotional impact. To Pimp a Butterfly held its worldwide opening at Regal Cinemas LA Live to a crowd of celebrities and moviegoers of different backgrounds. Rui professes, “Asians are the fastest-growing immigration group in the US but, to this day, they are still the least represented communities in American arts and media. This film gives us a chance to really present how they fight for life, for living, and to grow stronger. This is a story about identities of Chinese immigrants. I’ve always wanted to make a film in Chinatown and about the lives of Chinese people in America; what it means to come to America, to raise a family here, what happens once we come here, and how we figure out our identity. Immigration has become such a big issue and it to an extreme, is what the mother Butterfly goes through.”