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The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman: Hallucinatory Chinese slapstick

A scene from "The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman"

2.5 out of 4 stars


Chopped hooey.

This is what director Wuershan serves up in The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman, a steaming vat of Chinese celluloid overflowing with hallucinatory ingredients and phantasmagoric flavours that had its world premiere last year as part of Midnight Madness at the Toronto International Film Festival.

While one can sketch the outlines of Wuershan's creation - loosely described (very) as "a martial arts comedy," it has three intertwining stories, titled Desire, Vengeance and Greed, all set in ancient China, featuring the adventures of the film's titular characters - doing justice to its manic flow and stylistic mash-ups is another task altogether. Perhaps even a hopeless one.

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Wuershan cut his directorial teeth making commercials and the tricks of that trade - rapid cutting, quirky camera angles, arresting faces, a warp-speed pacing privileging sensation over sense - are amply displayed in his feature debut. About the only thing this cinematic whirligig skimps on is coherence, both narrative and aesthetic. A delirious postmodernist, Wuershan references umpteen directors (Sergio Leone, Ang Lee, Stephen Chow et al) and their films while deploying virtually every technique known to cinematic man - split-screen, animation, partial black and white, saturated colour, instant replays, video. Sound-wise, too, it's a mishmash, with sequences orchestrated to heavy-metal guitars, hip hop, even opera ( Carmen).

By far the most compelling story within the swoosh of Wuershan's stories-within-stories is the second, Vengeance. Here, a handsome deaf mute (Masanobu Ando) becomes the protégé of a diminutive master chef (Mi Dan, channelling the spirit of Yoda) who's commanded by a brutal aristocrat, the Eunuch Liu (Xie Ning channelling the spirit - and girth - of Jabba the Hutt) to prepare, in one month's time, his legendary "big eight-course" meal. If the food displeases the aristocrat, the chef will die. To ensure that the big eight-course doesn't disappear from the earth in the event of his death, the chef trains the mute in the arcana of its preparation - an occasion for much sensuous camerawork by cinematographer Michal Tywoniuk.

Of course, the pupil proves a brilliant successor; how could it be otherwise? But in short order, the viewer learns that the skills he's obtained are merely the menu to a more sinister end, namely the murder of the Eunuch Liu who 15 years earlier killed his father, also a chef.

Quests also underpin the film's other narrative frames, but much less satisfactorily. Desire's the slapsticky yarn of a grotesque butcher named Chopper (a hammy Liu Xiaoye) smitten by the charms of the beauteous prostitute Madame Mei (Kitty Zhang). Armed with a cleaver forged from the swords of the greatest warriors, Chopper is determined to make her his bride but first has to subdue another suitor, an indomitable knight known as Big Beard. In Greed, another warrior (Ashton Xu) tracks down a master blacksmith (You Benchang) to force him to forge a sword from what the warrior believes is a chunk of invincible iron he's nefariously retrieved from his father's grave.

Yes, it's all quite mad, Max, with a shaggy-dog ending to boot. But this giddiness, its go-for-broke/what-the-hellness, also is the film's strength. Admittedly, you leave the theatre wondering if there's a big enough mainstream audience willing to stop trying to make sense of its fractured mythology to make a box-office winner. Probably not. As a result, cult, thy name just may be The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman.

The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman

  • Directed by Wuershan
  • Screenplay by Zhang Jiajia, Tang Que, Ma Luoshan, Wu Ershan
  • Starring Masanobu Ando, Kitty Zhang, Liu Xiaoye, Ashton Xu
  • Classification: PG

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