The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman is a cataclysmic mess – a story that seems intentionally made to be as aggressive and incoherent as possible. Here is a film that isn’t edited so much as slapped together from spare parts and held in place with duct tape; insane characters come and go as they please, subplots are plied one on top of another like so many dirty clothes, and it tries to be all things to all audiences by cramming in every conceivable genre, from martial arts to comic book to video game to period drama to comedy to revenge fable to love story. It’s visually atrocious; the colors are muddy, the lighting is muted, and the action sequences are hacked into indecipherable blurs. In Ancient China, warriors were known to commit suicide when they lost a battle; this movie, which takes place in a time that looks very much like Ancient China, may want to consider the same tactic.
For the love of all that’s holy, what the hell is this movie about? It’s divided into three storylines, each such a confusing train wreck that I’m at a loss to explain why director Wuershan thought it necessary to intertwine them near the end. The first, subtitled “Desire,” introduces us to a butcher named Chopper (Liu Xiaoye), a rotund man with muttonchops and really bad teeth. He would be a prime candidate for a mental institution, what with the way he screams and waves around his meat cleaver. He’s in love with the beautiful Madame Mei (Kitty Zhang), but she’s claimed by an enigmatic warrior known only as Big Beard (Senggerenquin), whose voice would be perfect for a Mandarin dubbing of Darth Vader. Chopper, who has absolutely no fighting skills, decides to challenge Big Beard for Madame Mei’s affections. At a certain point, the segment segues into a Chinese rap music video; I haven’t seen a more embarrassing sight since Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, and Colin Firth donned polyester suits in Mamma Mia.
In the second segment, “Vengeance,” a common thief (Ando Masanobu), who went mute after being bitten by a snake, is sentenced to become an apprentice cook in a filthy restaurant kitchen, where the owner regularly beats the staff with his fan. The head chef, a dwarf (Mi Dan), is informed that a powerful man will be passing through in a month’s time, when he intends to sample the chef’s renowned eight-course meal. If his cooking fails to satisfy, he will be killed. In the hopes of preserving the legacy of his menu, the chef hand picks the apprentice and teaches him all of his best-kept secrets, including his method for making the last course especially delicious. This segment could be considered food porn were the meals and their preparation not so visually unpleasant; the chopping shots are so quick and awkwardly framed that they come off as little more than white noise. Even more unpleasant is the eventual appearance of Master Eunuch Liu (Xie Ning), who has the figure of Jabba the Hutt and the makeup job of Queen Amadala (take note – that was my third Star Wars reference).
The third segment, “Greed,” a monotone and merciless swordsman named Dugu Cheng (Ashton Xu) saunters into a village that looks like it was made out of bamboo chutes and superglue; he finds a blacksmith named Fat Tang (You Benchang) – an old man who loves his pet rooster (despite subjecting him to cockfights) – and orders him to forge a sword from a lump of iron, which came to be when the swords of warriors past were melted and combined. It was placed in a box and buried along with Dugu’s father, although for the life of me, I don’t remember the reason why. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t care less.
The thread common to all three segments is, of all things, a meat cleaver. It has its own complicated back-story, which I can’t recall and wouldn’t care to describe even if I could. The twists and turns in each segment are so numerous that, in all likelihood, the mystery of the cleaver will be the least of your problems. Rarely has a movie worked so hard at being so difficult to follow; director Wuershan must not have much regard for screenplays, which are typically organized. He’s also horrendously indecisive when it comes to genre; you know something is wrong when a bleary and badly lit action sequence is replayed as a computerized animatic, where the characters are rendered as simple shapes. This is, we soon discover, a preview of a later scene, one in which a fight literally transforms into a video game, complete with life meters and throbbing techno music.
I haven’t seen anything like The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman – and with any luck, I’ll never see anything like it again. My God, what a bad movie. It’s a muddled, incomprehensible disaster, one of the few films that made the idea of watching a blank screen for ninety minutes seem appealing. The worst part is, I don’t think there was anything that any of the actors could have done to improve it; no performance would be able to come across in a story this structurally, visually, and thematically incompetent. The only acceptable improvement would be to take every reel from every movie theater that has the misfortune of playing it, pile them in some distant field, and set a match to them. Now there’s something I’d enjoy watching.
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20th Century Fox