BUTTERFLY AND SWORD is from 1993, so it’s after Michelle Yeoh had already done YES, MADAM! and even SUPERCOP, but it’s her first straight up wuxia movie. Let me put it this way: in the opening scene in “West Chamber, Eunuch Li’s Mansion,” I do believe we see a guy’s face get ripped off and thrown into a pile of snakes. So this is not a drill. This is the unadulterated, berserk kind of kung fu fantasy film where there pretty much aren’t characters who don’t jump 25 feet in the air and shoot some kind of weapon.
Our male lead Brother Sing (Tony Leung, HARD BOILED, RED CLIFF, THE GRANDMASTER) is introduced bouncing off a string to fly through the air like an arrow, causing at least half a dozen dudes to explode as he hits them. He also has a cool method of holding a bow behind his back and firing his sword. Yeoh’s character Lady Ko gets a quicker but even more fanciful introduction flying in with a fanfare of confetti and a web of unfurling purple silk scarves.
But the weakness of the script by John Chong (producer of GEN-X COPS) and Ku Lung (THE KILLER METEORS, HEROES SHED NO TEARS, also a novelist) is apparent when these two spend their first scene together talking about how she just saw his dick when he got out of the bath, comparing it to when they were kids. “Well, you did get taller. But there are places on you that are like mushrooms. They’re still the same size.” These are two accomplished actors in their early thirties and they’re introduced talking about this shit.
It took me a while to determine that she’s just an older orphan who took care of him when he was young, not his biological sister. The sexual sparring and innuendo still doesn’t come off that great. Before long there’s another scene where she insinuates they should fuck by talking about him peeping on her when they were young. Little does she know the real peeper was Brother Yip (Donnie Yen in his first teaming with Yeoh, followed by WING CHUN and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY), who still has a crush on her, but Brother Sing can’t get him to make a move. And he does degrading things like get drunk and try to make out with a drawing of her and get charcoal smeared all over his face.
Although Brother Sing tells his old lady Butterfly he’s “a simple merchant,” he’s an assassin for Lady Ko’s clan “Happy Forest.” When a spy attacks them Lady Ko chops off his head and carries it to Eunuch Tsao (Chang Kuo-Chu, THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS), a dude who has a pile of gold dust way bigger than Scarface’s pile of cocaine, and lounges around in a giant snake-throne like an enemy of He-Man. He gives her some questionable assignment to kill a guy by “mid-autumn,” which is also specified to mean August 15th. The day after the night from the Funkadelic song.
Lady Ko is a jerk, but it’s pretty funny how much she despises Brother Sing’s wife Butterfly (Joey Wang, A CHINESE GHOST STORY series). I know she’s jealous, but I bet she also shares my confusion about the movie being named after Butterfly. Ko disparages her cooking, spitting it out, and says things like, “I don’t know what you see in her. Many girls from the brothel are better than her!” She purposely calls her “Bee” or “Butter” and tells her, “Sing is fickle and has so many girlfriends. I just can’t remember all of their names. Please forgive me.”
Not that Brother Sing treats her great either. When he leaves town he gives her a giant scroll of instructions including to not eat too much, to take baths and not talk to herself. It ends, “The more I write, the more I find shortcomings about you. But you don’t have to despise yourself, because I have many shortcomings too. That’s why we are a perfect match.” Ah, what a doll! She kisses the scroll and holds it to her heart with perfect comic timing.
There are many great gimmicks, for example the bad guy who can’t decide which ten warriors to invite to a thing, so he invites hundreds on the assumption that most of them will kill each other if they show up at the same place. But, at least in this particular translation, it’s not an easy story to follow, and it’s hard for me to get involved in the characters and themes the way I do in my favorite martial arts films. It’s hard to get emotionally involved when you’re working so hard to keep up. That said, Yeoh is so good she kind of sells the melodrama of her big tearful speech scene, despite a ridiculous context (Brother Sing storms in to call her heartless while she takes a bath and after she breaks down she keeps trying to imply he should fuck her and also Brother Yip was outside peeping on her the whole time and sees Sing fall in the tub with her so he runs away angry and gets drunk and carves “TRAITOR OF THE HEART” in the dirt with his sword).
So I just enjoy it for its relentless sequence of crazy shit bouncing me around like one of those pinball machines where a bunch of balls come out at the same time. For example, Brother Sing gets killed in a battle, and it immediately cuts to his grave, where Lady Ko hits it and he explodes out of it and does some stretches, happy to have faked his death. In another part she does this move where she splits a bunch of tall bamboo reeds and shishkebabs some flying dudes on them like a cannibal holocaust.
But definitely my favorite move is when Brother Sing becomes a human arrow again, fired from the bow of Lady Ko’s body and the string of her scarf, going straight through a dude’s “superior armor.”
Admirably, the best part is the final fight, when their quite transparently evil boss dons the legendary weapon known as the Evil Claw (a Freddy Krueger glove that snips like an Edward Scissorhands glove when he attacks Lady Ko’s scarf) and admits “I’ve pretended to be Eunuch Li the whole time. I did this because I wanted there to be a massacre between the two most powerful clans so that I could have total control of the martial arts world.”
Obviously that makes for a good fight, but also the young Prince Cha (Jimmy Lin, LEGEND OF THE CHINESE TITANS), who hangs around the palace playing with his ball, reveals himself as an undercover operative and uses “The Magic Shadow Ball” as a weapon.
And this eunuch gets a death worthy of Screwface. First, Sing does his arrow move and explodes through him. Then he announces “Killing Kick!” and kicks his head. It explodes into chalky dust, blood sprays onto the throne, and the headless body crashes into a column, collapsing the entire palace on top of him.
Then, kind of like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the heroes stand around in the sun, happy that everything is resolved, when the headless body sneaks up behind them!
But Brother Yip, who has just arrived, stabs him with a fencing sword and he explodes. Everybody’s fine, but Lady Ko’s heart is broken as she watches Brother Sing and Butterfly embrace. I’m sure Brother Yip’s heart is also broken as he watches her watch them, but we don’t get to see that – it cuts to the credits montage with Yeoh herself singing a ballad that begins, “It’s regrettable to be destined but not together / It’s sad to be together but without love.”
This one is directed by Michael Mak, who I guess must be best known for this and SEX AND ZEN, since that one was used in that book title. He apparently stopped after a 2001 TV movie called ASIAN CHARLIE’S ANGELS. He also directed LONG ARM OF THE LAW 2-4 after his brother Johnny did the first one. I noticed more then usual that the straight story scenes are not as excitingly directed as the action scenes, which are by the great Ching Siu-Tung. This was his first time working with Yeoh, too. He would go on to choreograph her in THE HEROIC TRIO and HOLY WEAPON and direct her in EXECUTIONERS and WONDER SEVEN.
His fights are the reason to watch this. You get all his robes and ribbons flapping in the wind, flying weapon P.O.V.s, insert shots of weapons spinning or hitting things, arrows being split in the air by swords or other arrows, people gliding gracefully through the air like human kites constructed in perfect comic book poses, conversing while they do it.
Ching, Yeoh, Yen and Leung have all done better than BUTTERFLY AND SWORD. But you could do worse.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.