Fox // 2010 // 92 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // September 21st, 2011
One Legendary Blade Will Change The Destiny Of All Who Wield It.
Chopper (Liu Xiaoye), a lowly butcher, plans to marry Madame Mei (Kitty Zhang), a high-class courtesan, but is stopped in his efforts by the legendary swordsman Big Beard. Realizing that he alone cannot possible defeat Big Beard, Chopper sets out to acquire a fabled sword which is said to possess great power. As Chopper begins his journey to win Madame Mei's affections, we see how this weapon came to be and the fates of its numerous owners.
Visually, despite the inevitable stumbles that includes a disorienting opening featuring more fast cuts than the entire Bourne franchise combined, Chinese action-comedy The Butcher, The Chef, And The Swordsman is a triumph. The film employs numerous contrasting styles to produce a bold aesthetic that at times recalls Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Whole sequences are played out in black-and-white, or even reinterpreted in videogame form. Animated sequences breakup the main narrative, whilst onscreen graphics are often used to help convey a character's intentions. Hell, there's even a bizarre little hip-hop inspired music video that comes completely out of left field and threatens to completely derail many viewers accustomed only to mainstream cinema. However, even lovers of cult cinema are likely to find The Butcher, The Chef, And The Swordsman lacking.
For beyond the looks, there is little of substance to Wuershan's directorial debut. Characters are paper thin, offering too little to forge a real connection with the viewer. Part of the reason for this is the nature of the film's narrative, which adopts a piecemeal approach to storytelling and is too fragmented to really flow in any satisfying way, with some plot threads ending far too abruptly. Following the origin of the weapon which all the main players seek to possess, The Butcher, The Chef, And The Swordsman spans several timelines as its intricate plot is allowed to unfold. While it's commendable how each story relates to the next, with characters and events crossing over, they are often bloated with filler, leaving the real meat of the piece feeling like a mere afterthought. The origin of The Chef is a prime example of the problem. Rather than concentrating on developing the main characters, and thus enriching the story, the film focuses too much on the creation of the sword and inconsequential characters who offer nothing of value. As a MacGuffin, the sword is fine, but if the characters whose hands it passes through offer zero interest, then what point does it really serve?
The film is disappointingly light on action. What little there is lacks the confidence to allow the fight choreography to take center stage. In what becomes an increasingly common occurrence, much of the action takes place off screen, with nothing but reaction shots left for the viewer's entertainment. I've no problem with the film cutting away from the more violent moments (which includes several decapitations), but see little reason why supposedly important showdowns should be butchered so unnecessarily.
Chiefly a comedy, many of the jokes fail to translate to Western audiences, leaving only the universal language of slapstick to strike a chord. Unfortunately The Butcher, The Chef, And The Swordsman lacks the finesse of Keaton or Chaplin, and quickly becomes tiresome as the oafish character of Chopper, not to mention his irritating sidekick, rely on overacting to earn the rare giggle.
I've no doubt The Butcher, The Chef, And The Swordsman will find an audience on DVD. Despite my reservations, the film exhibits a good deal of imagination and moves at a frantic pace. With the exception of the striking visuals, there is little to warrant a second viewing, meaning that beyond a rental for fans of world cinema, I cannot recommend it.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is excellent. The picture is razor sharp throughout, with exceptional levels of detail. Depending on the scene, the colors are either muted or as vibrant as a cartoon. The 5.1 Mandarin soundtrack offers a lively mix, with crisp dialogue. Besides a trailer, the DVD contains no extra features.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13