Call it culture shock, but I was totally unprepared for the off-the-wall zaniness of Butterfly and Sword (mysteriously and nonsensically retitled Butterfly Swords for this new US release). A look at Wikipedia kinda maybe suggests that this blend of brutal violence, slapstick humor, and light-hearted soap opera has its roots in Shaw Brothers movies, but since I haven't seen any of those, I can't say for sure. What I can say is that despite a confusing plot, mishandled action sequences, and its tendency to make me want to yell "what?!" in disbelief at some mind-boggling directorial decision, Butterfly and Sword is pretty entertaining, intentionally or unintentionally.
Meng Sing Wan (Tony Leung), Lady Ko (Michelle Yeoh), and Yip Cheung (Donnie Yen) have been friends since they were very young, graduating from petty thievery and beating up other children to work as full-on mercenaries. Meng, however, is ready to leave his life of crime behind for Butterfly (Joey Wang), a beautiful girl who refuses to allow martial arts in her life out of respect for her father. For a while, Meng has been picking up the occasional work behind her back, but he swears to Lady Ko that their newest job, the retrieval of a letter for Grand Eunuch Li, is the last time the trio will work together.
This new DVD tries to pass the directorial buck onto a Kevin Chu -- he is the first director credited on the packaging and the only director credited by the subtitles; IMDb only credits Michael Mak. Either way, the direction of Butterfly and Sword is some sort of mad work of cartoon genius that jumps from brutal, bloody mayhem to full-on slapstick in the blink of an eye. Leung enters the first fight scene in the movie by, uh, using a bow he's holding to fire himself like an arrow into a crowd of defenders that explode when he strikes them, culminating with a gushing decapitation. Relatively serious scenes of Leung contemplating his future give way to a scene where he surfs a fishing pole and uses martial arts to send fish flying out of the water, Butterfly almost finding his porn collection, and even a fart joke for good measure.
Although the overall style is pleasing, it doesn't do any favors for the action sequences. Chu/Mak's love of crazh zooms actually makes some of the hand-to-hand fighting (much of which involves two characters flying through the air at each other) incomprehensible. The film's budget doesn't help either: Chu/Mak will frequently cut from some sort of controlled visual effect of arrows flying through the air to a reverse angle of hundreds of arrows literally being thrown into frame from off camera, which haphazardly flop onto a bunch of extras pretending they're being shot. Not all of the acrobatics are affected -- some of the more fluid, less frenetic sequences are very impressive -- but at other times, I found the soap opera love square between Meng, Ko, Yip, and Butterfly to be just as, if not more entertaining, thanks mostly to Wang's bubbly performance.
Based on my limited history with martial arts films both contemporary and classic, I'm a little hesitant to label Butterfly and Sword a B-movie, but I find it hard to believe that traditional Chinese epics were quite this silly. Then again, I guess it doesn't really matter: I think the movie benefits from its gonzo style. Although the film's notoriously truncated ending is a bit unsatisfying, this is half honestly entertaining action/comedy/drama and half over-the-top outrageous fun. The experience will probably leave modern audiences thinking more of Sam Raimi than classic Hong Kong martial arts movies, but hey, good entertainment is where you find it.
I've looked at it over and over again, and I just can't figure out what is meant to be going on with Donnie Yen on the cover of the DVD, unless he has an arm growing out of the middle of his torso. I also don't understand where his clothing ends and Michelle Yeoh's begins, or why those two made the cover but Tony Leung was left out in the cold, considering he's basically the movie's protagonist (I guess not enough American viewers have seen Hard-Boiled to make him cover-worthy, which is a crime in and of itself). The art slides into a glossy slipcover bearing the same art, and there is no insert inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Although the packaging lists the film as being presented in 16x9, which would likely be a huge draw for fans of the film, this is a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic letterboxed presentation of the film, and it looks pretty poor. Fine detail is non-existent, colors are faded, dot crawl and black crush are a problem, and the print used is heavily damaged. Still, the fact that this is non-anamorphic is really the most pertinent strike against it. It's 2012, and I don't care what kind of effort or money it takes, if you're gonna put something out on DVD, it better be 16x9.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is marginally better. A constant hiss accompanies all of the audio, which is also muddy and fuzzy. Surround effects aren't really present, as the effects are not crisp enough to resolve, but in general, it never seemed so murky that a Mandarin speaker would struggle to understand the film or what was happening. A 2.0 mix and English subtitles are also provided, but the subtitle track used here is riddled with spelling errors. At least it's not burned into the picture...
None. Trailers for Blade of Kings and Flashpoint play before the main menu. No trailer for Butterfly and Sword is included.
Although I liked the movie, the presentation is dismal and there are no extras. Rent it until a distributor takes the time to drag the A/V presentation into the 21st century.
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