Butterfly and Sword

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 8th, 2020 at 9:37 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

9 Responses to “Butterfly and Sword”

  1. Always enjoyed this one. My brother and I first watched it on VHS in unreadable subtitles that even when legible didn’t make any sense. Having copies where you can see the picture and understand the story (kinda) just isn’t the same…

  2. Could never get into this kind of stuff, it’s so silly. That’s why I was so shocked to love Crouching Tiger so much. One thing Lee did that I thought was so great is really show the differences of abilities…not everyone could fly, only about 4 people and even Zhang Ziyi’s character had trouble getting height. I loved it when Ziyi’s character jumped on the roof so the constable couldn’t get to her, and later that lawman and his daughter have to fight on the ground too. In a typical HK movie they wouldn’t really care about these details.

  3. I’ve not seen this, so I can’t comment on the specifics, but from Vern’s review it sounds like what silliness it has is coming from somewhere other than the wire fu. Agreed that Lee’s approach in CTHD is masterful, but generally rejecting wuxia movies because “people could never fly like that really and it’s silly” seems about as useful as rejecting zombie movies because “the dead could never walk the earth really”. What’s important is that you believe in the characters and the stakes for them, and, of course, that the world is consistent to its established rules.

    Apologies if that is stating the bleedin’ obvious.

  4. I tend to like crazy stuff like this better than more serious pieces like CTHD. The crazier the better, really.
    And when it comes to flying I like it when they kick up some dust and look like they’re using their strenght to take off, rather than some magic powers.

  5. Well Borg, clearly I don’t have a problem with people flying in these kinds of movies in general because I like how Ang Lee did it. But I like real king fu and the flying shit hardly has any most of the time. Plus the flying looks pretty goofy. And most of the wuxia stuff generally seems like they spent a few minutes coming up with a story on a napkin and then spend their effort on the flying shit.

    And unlike Lee’s film, I usually don’t really feel for the characters because a lot of the HK movies are pretty standard. Oh look, Jet Li playing a stoic good man for the 140th time, and now he has a 15 minute long fight scene with a guy who throws his sleeves at him, okay.

  6. But isn’t that the appeal of these movies. Much like westerns or sci fi, once they’ve established the cinematic world, we want to see action, be it fencing, kung fu or shooting.

  7. Sure, I get all that. I think the problem is that a lot of HK movies – at least of this era – have bad acting, poor production values, awful low slapsticky humour, and dubious gender politics, and that can obscure the action for a lot of people. I don’t know that I think the flying looks goofy, and we all know there’s a time and a place for Jet Li to look stoic, but I think people can tend to roll up the wire fu with all the bad things, and dismiss them all as a job lot. And wire work per se is not a bad thing, as CTHD proved convincingly to those who weren’t already on board with the idea. I know this is a mileage may vary thing and I respect that, but it’s a key part of the worlds these movies try to create.

    Muh, how’d you feel about wire work in more contemporary martial arts movies? I thought SPL2 was all the more thrilling for it, but I know it took some people out of the fights.

  8. Well here’s the thing about that pegs…Westerns don’t usually have much action. Some do of course, but think of the good ones and not the crap…not really a lot of shootouts. Even the old John Wayne movies didn’t necessarily feature a lot. Good The Bad and the Ugly is three hours long but how much genuine action is there? So I get what you mean, cause this is a kung fu flick and all…but just because it’s an action movie doesn’t mean all I want is just mindlessness. Shit man, a movie like The Raid is wall to wall action but they tell a pretty cool story with a lot of character details.

    Borg, I’m just generally not a fan of wore stuff. It pretty much always looks silly and that’s why the awesome kung guys never went there except to accentuate action. They also didn’t have the technology to do it well so it’s just a bunch of one second cuts and everything’s sped up and it just goes on and on and maybe you have three seconds of real kung in there. My HK kung action of that era is Jackie, Sammo, Lau Kar Leung, guys like that. Eastern Condors, that’s my kind of 80s HK kung…the climax is perfect direction, character bits, great fighting, nice pauses for dramatic effect, not music to get in the way. Sammo has to be one of the best directors of kung ever…other guys may even be better choreographers or whatever, but Sammo’s direction and quick camera moves is amazing so many times.

    Wire work in contempory flicks? Depends on how they’re used. If to accentuate action they can be fine. I’ll allow for them in a Charlie’s Angels 2000 flick because it’s just silly anyway, or obviously The Matrix. But something like Romeo Must Die? PATHETIC. Just dogshit. I don’t really remember them in SPL 2 so they must not have bothered me. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of that movie…I did like it well eough, but thought the fights were a little more generic and too long…more typical HK stuff which caaaan be good. But man I think what Donnie Yen did in the first was pretty revolutionary so anything with that name better live up. If SPL was called something else I probably would have liked it more, I guess that’s unfair but hey you take the mantle of the King, you better have a nice throne.

    The weird movie of Donnie’s that makes me wish he just directed stuff more was Legend of the Wolf. The fight at the end of the movie is INSANE. A lot of people I know hate that one, but I saw it and was like this is genuinely artistic filmmaking but not in the boring way, just amazing stuff.

  9. Just checked out some of the ending to SPL 2 out of curiosity…yeah the wires in that, at least from the 5 minutes I watched, was fine. Just kind of pumps up the action and makes it a little more over the top. Now to me what I liked about the first is they didn’t really do that…in fact is you watch the making of, there are wire shots than Yen cut because they didn’t look like the fit, and he was right. I’d presonally not use them, my jam is still more like The Raid or whatever, but they work in SPL 2 just fine.

    Speaking of wires it’s so sad to see Jackie using them for EVERYTHING now. He can’t do a jumping spin kick so he has them wire him up and it looks ludicrous and pathetic. Jackie you’re old, we don’t expect you to be doing the exact same shit as 30 years ago. What he should be doing is change his choreography, just make it more grounded, lose the kicks, and use more fists and stuff. Do like Police Story, where yeah he did awesome stuff but basically just do power moves and let a stuntman go through eight panes of glass or something.

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