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.
The Video and Audio
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...