“The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman” was an interesting release for the Chinese film industry for a number of reasons, in part due to its having been produced through Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox and presented/executive produced by US director Doug Linman, known for hits like “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr and Mrs Smith”. The ambitious comedy, which marked the big screen debut of commercials and music video director Wuershan, was also of note for being one of the rare Chinese films to truly attempt a shake up of the traditional wuxia form through a sensory overload of flashy visual techniques. All of this earned the film a high profile release both in China and in North America, with it also screening to acclaim at a variety of festivals including Pusan and Toronto.
The film has a complex structure, and starts off following burly, uncouth butcher Shao San Liang (Liu Xiaoye), who is determined to woo the courtesan Madam Mei (Kitty Zhang, “CJ7”). Unfortunately for the poor man, when he goes to the town’s prostitute house to declare his love, he ends up being laughed at and beaten by her oversized warrior customer, the fearsome Big Beard. Thirsting for payback, Shao meets a strange man (Japanese actor Ando Masanobu, “Battle Royale”) with a powerful meat cleaver weapon that seems capable of defeating Big Beard, who relates to him the strange tale of how he came by it. As it turns out, the man was previously a chef, working for the famed cook Ba Da Chan (Mi Dan), who had planned to use the weapon to take revenge on the monstrous Eunuch Liu. Within this tale another unfolds, charting the origin of the cleaver, in which swordsman Dugu Cheng (Xu Chong) attempts to conquer the martial arts world after having it forged by the legendary blacksmith Fatty Tang (veteran television actor You Benchang) using iron stolen from his father’s grave.
Style over substance is very much the order of the day, with “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman” being an incredibly fast moving and dizzying experience. Wuershan assaults the viewer right from the very first frame, his background in commercials and MVs being blatantly obvious as he throws in pretty much every visual trick and technique in the book, varying the shot speed, saturating the colours and employing an array of bizarre camera angles, not to mention editing the film with a mania that suggests the mystic cleaver itself might have been used. With the film also featuring lots of CGI, video game style sequences, a musical rap number and a soundtrack consisting of pounding modern music and hip hop, it really does add up to an exhausting, eyeball searing hour and a half.
Despite an overwhelming impression that the film is trying very, very hard to impress as cutting edge, all of this actually works quite well, and Wuershan does a great job of keeping things tight and coherent. The film certainly rattles along at a fast, indeed breathless pace, and whatever else it might be is never anything approaching dull, and there’s more than enough going on to hold the interest, visually at least. This is unsurprisingly where the film does fall down somewhat, as while its story within a story within a story structure allows it to pack in a great deal of plot, not all of it feels necessary, with the swordsman segment in particular crying out for either trimming or more of a purpose. With its various threads being only tenuously unified by their themes, the film at times struggles to find any kind of substance, and as a result might well leave cold viewers seeking actual characters or narrative.
On the plus side, Wuershan seems very aware of this and film doesn’t take itself seriously, showing a scattershot and offbeat sense of humour throughout. Although surprisingly grotesque and mean spirited in places, the film is generally comical in a boisterous sort of way, with some imaginative gags and an amusing and occasionally clever script. Whilst the chef’s story has the most meat, it’s the wretched adventure of the butcher which is the funniest, with Liu Xiaoye hilariously over the top in his hopeless pursuit of the always gorgeous Kitty Zhang.
Although this might not be quite enough to win over viewers nonplussed by its determined visual excess, “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman” should definitely be enjoyed by anyone looking for something a little different from Chinese cinema. As a bold attempt to do something new with the traditional wuxia form, it mostly succeeds, and Wuershan dazzles the senses with an impressive flourish, if not always the intellect.
Wuershan (director) / An Changhe (short story), Zhang Jiajia, Ma Luoshan, Tang Que, Wuershan (screenplay)
CAST: Masanobu Andô
Kitty Zhang Yuqi