Liu Ziaoye, You Benchang, Senggerenquin, Masanobu Ando, Ashton Xu
Fox World Cinema
Frenzied almost to the point of exhaustion, Wuershan's The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman is an inventive and original film coming out of China, a country not exactly recognized for encouraging its filmmakers to exhibit anything close to creative independence.
With American filmmaker Doug Liman as executive producer, it's not particularly surprising that this film is a visually dizzying example of Asian cinematic eye candy. The film tells the stories of three intertwining characters (I'll give you one guess) ... a butcher, a chef and, yep, a swordsman. Their lives are connected by a powerful meat cleaver said to be constructed from the swords of legendary warriors.
The first story, "Desire," involves Chopper (Liu Xiaoye), a butcher who intends to marry the way out of his league courtesan Madame Mei (Kitty Zhang). To even meet her, he must get past the brothel's madam and warrior known as Big Beard.
The second story, "Vengeance," involves a chef (Miu Dan) who is called upon to prepare his famed eight-course banquet meal for the Eunuch Liu. If the meal fails to satisfy, the chef will be executed. In order to eliminate this potential, the chef assigns a mute underling (Ando Masanobu) to present the meal. Of course, just because one is mute doesn't mean one is stupid.
Finally, there is "Greed." In this story, a feared swordsman (Ashton Xu) commissions a blacksmith to melt down famous swords from legendary fighters into one monstrous weapon.
While The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman weaves together these three stories, it is most certainly important to note that these stories are neither cohesive nor particularly plot driven. In some ways, the film brings to mind the frenzied and fantastic physical comedy of the early Jerry Lewis years while presenting it in a distinctly Asian manner. The closest thing that comes to mind in contemporary cinema would be the recent A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, though that film was infinitely more cohesive.
The film is chaotic, but it's also a tremendous amount of fun for those able to simply abandon their expectations for Chinese cinema and simply surrender to it. The first story, in particular, is frequently hilarious and Liu Xiaoye is abandons himself to the necessary histrionics and extreme physical comedy required. The facial expressions between he and Kitty Zhang are priceless, and scenarios such as this one are seldom captured with such delight in Asian cinema.
The remaining two stories are a touch less satisfying, though Ando Masanobu is spot-on perfect as the mute underling with his own creative agenda. Director Wuershan takes the approach of tossing everything at the screen and, more often than note, quite a bit of it actually sticks with such cinematic gimmicks as animation, retro footage, a scene involving video game style footage and a weaving together of martial arts, comedy and much more.
Part of 20th Century Fox's efforts to bring more foreign cinema into the U.S. home video market, this is one film that one could actually enjoy even without the obligatory subtitles playing over the film's native Mandarin language. The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman comes out on DVD on September 27, 2011 at all your usual online and brick-and-mortar video outlets.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic