Butterfly and Sword

Michelle Yeoh takes a stab at the kung fu flying fantasy genre with a film that is amazing at times but is not completely satisfying.  Some of the action scenes are startlingly brilliant, almost beautiful at moments and the flying looks effortless. Certainly a cast of Michelle, Donnie Yen, Joey Wong and Tony Leung is worth a visit, but the movie never clicks on an emotional level. It is a film that sometimes flies but often plods along. When the characters are not flying or fighting, the director seems to have no idea what to do with them.
Though the plot is a bit confusing and almost unimportant, it is about some friends (Michelle, Donnie and Tony) who grow up together from childhood to become martial arts masters (though we never have any idea how this transformation took place). One day they are homeless kids, then masters of the art of killing. They are ordered to get a letter from another martial arts clan. There is also time spent needlessly following a bit of a love quadrangle between the characters. Donnie loves Michelle who loves Tony who loves Joey. Well, at least Donnie gets Michelle in Wing Chun!
My favorite scenes are when Michelle makes her first appearance in a carriage in which the runners are floating in the air. It's a magical scene. Then later when Michelle uses Tony as an arrow to literally go through the enemy is quite amazing. This is a film that could have been a classic perhaps if they had spent more time developing a plot and made the heroes more likable. Though we know we are suppose to root for the trio, we really are given no reason to. By the way if you just want to see the action scenes go to the end credits where they are all replayed!


My rating for this film: 7.5

Reviewed by YTSL
 

It might well be so that a primary cause of my considering what has been succinctly described as "[p]leasant, adroit, completely generic" (by Howard Hampton in Fredric Dannen and Barry Long's "Hong Kong Babylon" book) to be more special than others do is that it was the first "new wave" "wuxia" production I ever saw (first in home video format; and now -- as of a few days ago -- on the big screen).  Whatever the reason, I must admit to still thinking that although it is not as visually stunning and imaginative as certain others of its type, it might well be the best introduction that most people can have to that which may be best described as swordplay fantasy dramas (although they also tend to contain dollops of comedy, sprinklings of horror and infusions of romance).

BUTTERFLY AND SWORD contains many elements that I (now) realize are entirely typical of the type of Hong Kong movie(s) which I really like. Viewed from a certain perspective, a strong case can be made for the film's makers having sought to ensure that it combines and possesses ALL of the representative portions of the supposedly historical, often supernatural, action epics churned out for a too short period of time. Put more specifically, this 1993 effort has in it:  Rival martial arts factions; an evil eunuch; a sought after piece of paper; people who love those who have set their hearts on others; metaphor-laced conversations; the use of otherwise ordinary objects rather than just swords or even bare-knuckled fists as amazingly deadly weapons; a fairly complicated (some might say confusing) plot; and -- of course -- flying people galore.
Even this fan of it must admit that BUTTERFLY AND SWORD can feel somewhat formulaic in parts.  It also is rather obvious that it was not made with as ample a budget or on a scale and with a color scheme to really rival that of such as "Swordsman II" and "The Bride with White Hair".  This movie further is hardly distinguished by its director not seeming to have unequivocally decided what ought to be the production's chief focus plus who should be its most sympathetic character.  Re the former:  Is it the fighting or the romance(s) (The film's prologue and end-song -- English translations of which can be found here and here appear to indicate that it is the matters of the heart.  But the amount of effort and time which look to have been lovingly lavished on staging and filming certain of the movie's Ching Siu Tung-choreographed fight scenes seem to point to it being otherwise)?  Re the latter:  Is it Butterfly, one of the two main swordsmen in the film or the head of their "Happy Forest" band and their (honorary older) Sister Ko?
I would argue though that what this offering lacks in sheer spectacle and drive is made up to a large extent by its having more (sense of) humanity.  To my mind, BUTTERFLY AND SWORD also benefits a great deal from its possession of a capable cast, led by four individuals whose contributions to Hong Kong cinema ought not to be underestimated.  Joey Wong (the star of "A Chinese Ghost Story" and a memorable presence in "The East is Red") endows the Butterfly title role with so much charm that conversations which involve bras, underpants, farting and pigs brains actually seem amusing rather than utterly ridiculous or uncalled for.  As Meng Sing Wan, Tony Leung Chiu Wai is equally effective in scenes that involve comedy, tragedy, heroic poses and human emotion; amply showing once more why he's (already) a two time "best actor" as well as double "best supporting actor" winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards.  And Donnie Yen (who was a worthy foe for Jet Li in "Once Upon a Time in China II" and Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Kar Fai in "Dragon Inn") makes the character of Yip Cheung  simultaneously sweet as well as pathetic and understandable as someone who is great in battle but a loser in love.
With regards to the film's lead actress:  Her acrobatics in the bamboo forest alone should suffice to give credence to my opinion that to watch Michelle Yeoh in martial artistic action is to behold an amazing combination of balletic grace, lethal prowess, suppleness of body and beauty in motion.  And while it is true that she does not perform as dangerous stunts in this wire-fu spectacle as in "Police Story III: Supercop" and this ensemble piece is not a showcase of her talent(s) like with "Wing Chun", IMHO, the role of Sister Ko is the most complex -- and morally ambiguous -- one that the woman who was accorded the nickname of "Princess Michelle" on the set of "Tomorrow Never Dies" has been awarded thus far.  Accordingly, it is the one which most amply allows her to display her not inconsiderable acting -- and not just in fight scenes -- ability (I have a feeling though that this is the last as well as first time in which she will be singing the theme song of a movie!).
Others whose performances help make this, then, entirely respectable offering into entertaining and enthralling fare for me include:  Jimmy Lin, whose Prince Cha may be light-weight in character but whose "ball-fu"(!) is certainly striking and fun to watch; and the actor who took the deceptive form of the elderly eunuch.  Then there are the child actors who played the young Sister Ko, Sing, Yip, Ho Ching and the other members of what has come to be labeled as "the Gang of Fatty"!  It surely is a credit to them that thus far in my Hong Kong movie viewing, the "childhood flashback" scenes in this film are some of the most (independently) noteworthy and engaging as well as spirited.


My rating for the film:  9.0