Butterfly and Sword - It was probably inevitable that Butterfly and Sword would get a release in the UK to cash in on the success of wuxia films in the early 2000's. The DVD notes boldly declare that it is "Even more impressive than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Upon watching this movie, you could be forgiven for regarding that statement with a degree of cynicism, or even rage.
Although it cannot compete with Crouching Tiger there are enough similarities to allow a level of comparison. Both movies are period wuxia films which give as much air time to flying bodies and mystical weapons as they do to martial arts sequences. Michelle Yeoh plays female lead in both films, and her male counterpart is a straight actor as opposed to a martial arts actor. In Crouching Tiger it was Chow Yun Fat, in Butterfly and Sword it is Tony Leung. The screen notes overplay the role of Donnie Yen in this movie who is a member of the support cast. Both films feature leading wire-fu choreographers in Yuen Woo Ping (CTHD) and Ching Siu-Tung (credited with Chinese Ghost Story, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Swordsman 2 etc).
When comparing critical and commercial success the films begin to diverge rapidly. Crouching Tiger broke box office records worldwide, received a number of awards including an Oscar and rejuvenated a whole genre. Butterfly and Sword performed poorly domestically, grossing HK $9.1m in 1993, reaching number 42 at the box office. This was one worse than Project S, Michelle Yeoh's ill-fated attempt to reprise her role from Police Story 3. After completing this and the far superior Tai Chi Master (Twin Warriors) in 1993, she did little of note until Crouching Tiger in 2000. Tony Leung had just rocked the action world with his John Woo collaborations in the early nineties (Bullet in the Head and Hard Boiled), but after this movie he began to focus on modern urban tales, particularly working with Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love). Donnie Yen was busy kicking some martial arts butt on Once Upon a Time in China 2 and Iron Monkey before embarking on several TV projects and choreography jobs. Director Michael Mak did little work of note either before, after or during this movie. (Some erroneously credit this movie to Chu Yin-Ping, but he recycled some of the footage here to make a softcore version, Slave of the Sword (also 1993).
I have spent several minutes musing whether it is worth properly exploring this plot for the benefit of readers. I think I will just end up confusing myself rather than adding any value to review. However, I can confirm a few elements with some degree of certainty. Butterfly (Joey Wong) is reasonably clueless chick in love with Sing (Tong Leung). His sister, Michelle Yeoh, is loved by the shy but deranged Donnie Yen. They are all members of the Happy Forest , who are in external strife against the Elite Villa (run by the evil Elvis Tsui). Throw in a deceitful eunuch, a faked death and plenty of unrequited love and that's all the ingredients for this troubled swordplay fantasy.
Out of interest, this is based on a novel by Gu Long (Meteor, Butterfly, Sword) and was originally adapted into film in 1976's Killer Clans, directed by Chor Yuen. This Shaw Brothers work is a more refined and intelligent work, but most films would come off well in a comparison to Butterfly and Sword.
I am not going to quicken the onset of arthritis in my fingers by wasting too much time slating the confusing, impenetrable, ill-paced and down-right naff storytelling in Butterfly and Sword. The only reason people will watch this movie to the end will be to see if there is a sweet fight scene to follow all the distracting filler. You will not give a damn about the characters, or have any real concern for the plight of the warring clans. There are so many plot threads that are either forgotten or ignored during the movie. This is just plain lazy.
The only saving grace for Butterfly and Sword is the action. It is hugely under-cranked and uses plenty of camera tricks to get the shots, but some are particularly impressive. Ching Siu-Tung has always pushed back the boundaries of choreography and this is no exception. Among the normal fantasy fare, you will see Tony Leung launched like an arrow by Michelle Yeoh and a scarf that can decapitate people. There is a competent scene in the bamboo forest, which was built on and improved when Ching Siu-Tung did House of Flying Daggers. Donnie Yen does ok in the fighting without any exceptional scenes but the camera tricks manage to mask Tony Leung's limited skills.
A budget disc by MIA, but no surprise there. There is a non-restored widescreen print with Cantonese language and a full-screen English dubbed version. There are no extras worthy of mention and the disc packaging is erroneous / misleading.
If you really dig the frenetic wire-fu action that dominated the 1992 - 1995 Hong Kong movie scene, this is another unremarkable entry. Featuring a fine cast and choreographer you are right to expect far more than Butterfly and Swords eventually delivers. If you prefer more realistic martial arts action I can see no good reason to watch this film. None at all.