Film Review: The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman

Though “presented” by American director Doug Liman, this coarse, complicated period comedy is unlikely to catch on with mainstream U.S. audiences, while fans of contemporary Chinese movies will compare it—mostly unfavorably—to Step

A series of interlocking stories set in some vague ancient China, Mongolian-born Wu Ershan’s second feature, The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman, wraps a star-crossed love story within a grotesque comedy inside a cautionary tale about avarice and hubris, all told in the frantic manner of a live-action cartoon.

Divided into three parts, it opens with “Desire,” in which fat, vulgarian Chopper (Liu Xiaoye), a lowly butcher, is smitten by the regally beautiful Madame Mei (Kitty Zhang), star courtesan at the House of a Thousand Flowers brothel. Against all advice, Chopper patiently saves up to buy her; when a swordsman swoops in and claims Madame Mei, Chopper prepares to do battle armed only with his cleaver.

“Vengeance” delves into the cleaver's history, which begins with a mute thief (Ando Masanobu) being sentenced to kitchen labor at the famous South Beauty restaurant. The thief proves a natural, so South Beauty's owner, a sly dwarf (Mi Dan), decides to make him the fall guy when the eunuch Liu (Xie Ning), a notorious gourmet, comes to sample its famous eight-course feast. Liu, a grotesque cross between Jabba the Hutt and Fat Bastard, is notorious for slaughtering chefs who don't live up to his exacting standards, so the dwarf teaches the thief all his secrets, including the role of a very special cleaver essential to his signature dish. But there’s more to the thief than meets the eye.

In “Greed,” the cleaver's origins are traced through the cautionary tale of Dugu Cheng (Ashton Xu), who’s so determined to be a famous warrior that he looted his own father’s grave of a lump of iron made from the weapons of fallen heroes and ordered the legendary metal worker Fat Tang (You Benchang) to forge it into the ultimate sword. His comeuppance returns the story to the House of a Thousand Flowers, where its threads are neatly brought together.

On the plus side, The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman is cleverly plotted, and its resolution is more elegantly—even sentimentally—satisfying than the crude, slapstick violence of its opening section would lead one to imagine. The downside is that it’s so hell-bent on being unpredictable, outrageous and nerve-rattling that it’s just plain exhausting, like a clip reel composed entirely of the most abrasively surreal moments from Jerry Lewis and Roberto Benigni movies flash-cut together with the volume cranked up to eleven.

Mainstream action-movie lovers are unlikely to embrace this frenetic mishmash—the subtitles alone will put them off—and fans of contemporary Chinese genre movies are bound to compare it unfavorably to Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. Chow's movies put the same bag of visual tricks at the service of oddly affecting stories; his downtrodden heroes retain a measure of dignity even as they’re put through slapstick hell, a balance The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman achieves only at the very end.