The first thing you’ll notice about The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman, the directorial debut from Wuershan, is the overly stylized aesthetic of the film. Initially the color palate is a wide cross-section of greys punctuated by random, heavy-handed highlights of red that are usually, but not always, blood spatter.
This monochrome approach to the opening, coupled with an absurd number of quick edits, is dizzying, and not necessarily in a good way—imagine if Snatch era Guy Richie made a Chinese period piece and that’s a pretty good idea of what The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman feels like. The overall effect is as annoying as it is disorienting, as the opening snap cuts through a trio of nonsensical, and seemingly unrelated, scenes.
The actual story of The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman is told in three chapters that gradually recede in time. Lowly butcher Chopper (Liu Xiaoye) is in love with Madame Mei (Kitty Zhang), the highest of high-class prostitutes, a woman so beyond his reach that even all of the money he painstakingly rakes together can’t get him anywhere near her. He must, however, contend with a fierce warrior named Big Beard, and to do so Chopper tries to hijack a kitchen cleaver from what appears to be a schizophrenic hobo who swears that the cooking implement is “not for killing”.
The second chapter chronicles the adventures of the Mute (Ando Masanobu), the Chef of the title, and how he came to possess the cleaver. His is a revenge story that involves a tiny master chef (Mi Dan) who is legendary for his eight-course meal—food so beautiful it makes men weep—and a ruthless, morbidly obese eunuch who closely resembles Jabba the Hut in appearance and function.
In the third installment you learn the origin of the cleaver. A swordsman (Ashton Xu), who seeks to become the greatest warrior of all time, digs up his father’s grave and steals a celebrated chunk of iron that consists of the melted down remains of a collection of great weapons. He then forces a retired swordsmith with a penchant for drink and gambling, to create a single, formidable sword that will catapult him to the legendary status that he desires.
After the story goes back in time through these three stories, it runs forward again, through the conclusions of each tale. This structure is really the best thing that The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman has going for it. Aside from the opening, the construction and pace of the film is handled well by Wuershan and company.
Unfortunately, that’s about all that can be said in favor of the movie. Everything else is empty stylistic over indulgence, giving the film the feel of a nonsensical 90-minute music video. The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman is a frenetic mess. Beyond even the lighting fast edits, they cram in a musical number where a gang of prostitutes raps, there are clumsy animated cut scenes, and even a Mortal Kombat style video game aside, among many other riffs and digressions. One gimmick follows another until you just want to tell them to knock it off. It actually becomes frustrating and exhausting to watch.
Chopper’s presence doesn’t help matters any. The middle of the film, the sections that follow Mute and the Swordsman, are tolerable. You can handle them, and for a minute you almost enjoy the movie. But any time Chopper is onscreen is near unwatchable. He is like a shrill, screaming infant. His voice is grating, and all he does is holler and whine. Chopper as a character is supposed to be slapstick, but his part is full of tired gags like stepping on rake and smacking himself in the face—no ne’s ever done that before—and there is nothing else to redeem him
The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman suffers from one giant, fatal flaw that permeates every single frame—overkill. The film is one excess piled on top of another until nothing that can save the film. The stories themselves are interesting, and the structure and pacing are admirably rendered, but it is like staring into a strobe light for an hour and a half. You’ll wind up with a dull throb behind your eyes, wondering what the hell the point of all that was.
The DVD packaging does nothing to sweeten the deal, either. Unless you really want to see the trailer for The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman, then you’re in luck, because that’s the entirety of the bonus material. It hardly seems worth having a “Special Features” button on the disc menu.