Even though I like my share of stylish Eastern martial arts period pieces from time to time, it's not exactly the most dashing or innovative genre one can imagine. Sure the cinematography improves and the fight choreography gets 1-upped all the time, but in the end these films all look very much alike. Enter Wuershan's The Butcher, The Chef And The Swordsman [Dao Jian Xiao], time to welcome a new generation of Chinese film makers.
I always figured The Butcher, The Chef And The Swordsman tied in with the rest of those "modern" Chinese/Hong Kong period pieces (think Mr. & Mrs. Incredible or My Own Swordsman). Decent, somewhat flashy martial arts comedies, but all in all too fluffy and forgettable to make a real impression. Wuershan is clearly aiming for more, revealing himself as the Chinese alternative to Taylor and Neveldine (Crank 2, Gamer). If that makes you cringe, it's probably best to abandon this film altogether.
The Butcher, The Chef And The Swordsman starts with the sad tale of a scruffy looking butcher in love with one of the top-selling ladies of virtue. The butcher is convinced he can save up enough money to buy his way into happiness, ignoring the fact that a skilled martial arts master is also eying the love of his life. Things look bleak for our butcher, until he meets a mysterious figure carrying around a mythical cleaver which will grant him the strength to claim his true love.
From there on the film tumbles in a repeating structure of flashbacks and stories within stories. Three tales develop (the story of the butcher, the chef and the swordsman - how convenient) that will lead back to a sprawling finale where our butcher will attempt to rescue his princess one final time. Needless to say, all of this is handled with the appropriate amount of over-the-top humor.
The Butcher, The Chef And The Swordsman is very typical for a film coming from a first-time director. Wuershan clearly grabbed this opportunity to show the world his skills and vision. The result is an overload of style and visual flash, which I can only applaud. Each segment and flashback has its own very distinctive, in-your-face look, all of them are interesting in their own way. From over-saturated and colorful set pieces to black and white with red highlights, from childish animation to old-style CG models, it's all here and executed with great skill.
The score could've been a bit better though. It's a somewhat eclectic mix of modern high-energy tracks that turns out to be quite functional, but resides mostly in the background and upon closer inspection feels a little too generic. If you really start listening to the music there is very much of interest there, but within the madness of the film it's hardly an issue. Still, something Wuershan should take into account for this next project.
As for the actors, they are an interesting bunch. Of course there is plenty of completely over the top acting (Hong Kong-style) going on, but that's to be expected from a film like this. It's even accentuated by the crazy camera work, so naysayers better stay clear from this film. At the same time there are a few actors who clearly understand this form of acting like no other. Mi Dan and Masanobu Ando (where did he come from) are top of the crop here, but the rest of the cast is equally energetic. Excellent comedy performances that grant a lot of extra energy to the film's already energetic exterior.
There isn't much depth to be found in the different storylines or characters, but as this is a full-blown comedy that was to be expected. A bigger problem is the continuous onslaught of style and energy, which makes this film a pretty tiring experience, especially for those expecting a laid-back no-brainer. Personally I love this type of film making, things can't be hectic, insane and weird enough for me, but I'm sure not everyone will feel the same (which is exactly why I referred to Taylor and Neveldine early in my review). If anything, this film will keep you awake, even when you don't like what you see.
The Butcher, The Chef And The Swordsman was one of my brightest discoveries of 2011 (though of course, the film was actually made in 2010), turning out to be a very unexpected yet pleasant surprise indeed. Up front I really didn't expect too much from this film, but the result is flashy, funny, weird and in-your-face. I'm an instant Wuershan fan and hope he'll keep doing stuff like this before slowly fading away doing big budget stuff with little of his own input left in the end product. Good stuff and definitely recommended for those who appreciate a fair amount of ADHD weirdness.