Opening this week in Australian cinemas, The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman is the cinematic debut for director Wuershan (a successful Beijing-based commercial director), and the second Chinese film with the backing of Fox International, after last year’s star-studded romance Hot Summer Days. It’s also got Doug Liman (director of The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith) on board as an executive producer, and “presenting” the film in the posters for Western markets, much like Quentin Tarantino did for Zhang Yimou’s Hero.
This film, however, is closer to Stephen Chow’s more frenetic work in Hong Kong than Yimou’s dignified epic — our setting may be ancient China, but the rapping brothel madam and down-on-his-luck butcher certainly feel like they’ve stepped right out of Kung Fu Hustle.
The film is composed of three stories, each with its own visual aesthetic and overarching theme. The first, Desire, tells the story of Chopper the butcher (Liu Xiaoye), who after a chance sighting falls in love with courtesan Madame Mei (Kitty Zhang, from CJ7 and Jump). Unfortunately, his plans for marriage are somewhat complicated by the presence of the swordsman Big Beard, who wants Mei all to himself and is clearly quite capable of dispatching Chopper without a moment’s thought.
Our second story, Vengeance, follows the tale of a mute kitchen hand, played by Japanese actor Ando Masanobu (from Battle Royale and Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, among others). The powerful Eunuch Liu is coming to town and, after hearing of the head chef’s legendary eight dishes, has decided on visiting the for a private banquet. The only fly in the soup is that when Eunuch Liu is displeased with his meal, the life expectancy of the chef and staff involved tends to drop rapidly.
For the third part, Greed, we are introduced to the swordsman Dugo Cheng (Ashton Xu) who is absorbed in the traditional wuxia pursuit of Becoming the Ultimate Martial Artist, a title that seemed to have been rather effectively held by his father. To this end, he’s tracked down renowned swordsmith Fat Tang (You Benchang), now an old man, and set him to crafting a legendary sword which should — on paper at least — make him unbeatable. There’s a small cameo from Xiong Xin Xin in this part too, for those who like to see a familiar face in their action sequences.
Right from the word go, BCS is a kaleidoscope of sensory overload, full of vertiginous camera-work, fast cutting and unexpected visual effects. Don’t expect to be able to linger over many images in this film as it careens onwards, twitchily switching between points of view, colour palettes and short-lived split screen montages. This is particularly apparent in the first and last parts of the story, those focusing on the Butcher and the Swordsman; for the story of the Chef, Wuershan slows things down a little, and this respite in the middle is by far the strongest story of the three. Both Ando Masanobu and Mi Dan give good performances as the mute kitchen hand and master chef, injecting a bit of nuance into a film where there’s an awful lot of shouting and running around going on from everyone else.
All in all, I think that The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman is a bit too uneven for me to wholeheartedly gush about it. The three stories are nicely intertwined, and Wuershan’s constant experimentation results in a film that hasn’t got a boring moment in it. It does, however, feel like he throws a great deal at the wall here, and only some of it sticks — I could forgo a lot of the visual style for a bit more depth. That said, I did hugely enjoy the Chef’s story and some of the more interesting little vignettes, such as the Swordsman’s take on his father’s history… perhaps I’m just not enough of a gamer to handle the frenzied camerawork in the rest of the film.