Truthfully, I was going to see “Limitless” last night until I saw that a Chinese film was currently playing at a theater nearby as a limited engagement. So I decided to go see the film “The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman” (2010) instead, and in a way I was both pleased (since there was no crowd) and disappointed that such a refreshing approach to Chinese cinema almost came ignored in the U.S.. Based on the short story by An Changhe “Legend of the Kitchen Knife” the film director Wuershan is an oddball film to figure out and yet it proves to be very refreshing compared to the highly commercial historical melodrama and crowd-pleasing movies that have come out of China of late.
As the title suggests, the film is consists of three intertwining tales that revolve around a common denominator. The first one is called “Desire” as a butcher named “Chopper” (Liu Xiaoye) becomes obsessed with the beauteous courtesan named Madam Mei (Kitty Zhang) and with his attempts to buy her out of the brothel, he provokes the wrath of a bearded man. Humiliated and made to flee with his tale between his legs, the butcher steals the cleaver from a vagrant not knowing that this kitchen tool has a colorful and dark history. The second story is called “Revenge” when a mute (Japanese actor Ando Masanobu) becomes the apprentice of a master chef (Mi Dan) after it has been announced that an evil, gluttonous, grotesque nobleman will partake of the legendary eight course meal that is famous throughout the land. As the mute learns of his master’s culinary craft, a series of events reveal the origins of the ebony cleaver in the story called “Greed”. An expert swordsmith called Fat Tang was forced by a power-hungry swordsman (Ashton Xu) to forged a weapon from the blades of China’s brutal warlords…
The director definitely knew what he was after when he adapted the story into a full-length feature film. Wuershan attacks the premise with a different vigor and approach, at first glance it would quite easy to make your usual period film with slapstick humor, but instead he resorts to oddball visual and aural manipulations consists of musical numbers, feverish editing tricks, huge close-ups to express its exaggerated emotions, black humor and graphics and crude animated sequences that appear quite different from your typical Chinese film. The film is also filled bright colors and shadows, to express the mood to properly display the emotions of a scene. It was a huge gamble that could either make or break the film, as he assails the senses with this non-linear story of greed, revenge, obsession and betrayal.
The film is a commentary on human nature. That things or inanimate objects may be made for a purpose and yet it is us humans who determine its use or destiny. The three stories all revolve around the hidden vanities and sins (if you will) of the human spirit as they all play a part of the equation. An object was made from the evil requisitions of corruption, and yet it may be made to bring forth happiness and pleasure. That same object meant for pleasure can also be used as an instrument of less than moral intentions. An object may also be used to wrongfully achieve glory that may indeed backfire on the wielder one day. “The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman” is a collection of different choices, destinies and desires; some are noble while some are birthed out of sin. It is not an object that determines a destiny but it is man who pre-determines his fate.
I suppose if the film had a flaw, a trilogy of stories would always reveal which one is the better written of the three. The tale of the mute and the chef proves to be the more compelling as it appears to be the center of it all. It is the textbook story of master and student, as both learn from each other the values of choosing their fate and how fate itself can take a hand. Now, not that the film is just filled with oddball and bizarre elements, there is also a certain amount of stylish darkness about it as the tale of the swordsman proved to be the ‘reveal’ as it builds the foundations of an object and the hand of man through choices. The butcher story feels rather convoluted and disjointed, and it wasn’t only until the final act that everything made sense and it became interesting.
The performances were good for the most part. The characters were a collection of quirky, dark and upbeat enigmas that add to the film’s aura of mystery and Asian mysticism. Kitty Zhang was just so enthralling as the mysterious Madam Mei, and I was quite taken with the chemistry between Ando and Mi Dan. The antics of the butcher were quite cartoonish but I suppose that it was a balance necessary to give the narrative some touches of humor. Ashton Xu makes for a great moody swordsman and I almost wished that a full-length movie about this character would come soon. His was the hand that is branded by darkness and greed.
“The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman” is indeed a fable about man’s desires, his ability to choose and how some can be corrupted by an object, tangible and intangible. It is simply their weaknesses and strength as a human being that commands their fate; but at the same time fate on occasion plays a hand. The film has a few effective twists that is grim and at the same time pleasing; but it all manages to put together its themes around a solid narrative creation. The film is clever, but may not be for all audiences, its style is bizarre but familiar. It is bold as it takes its ideas in a different cinematic level that we’re used to.
Recommended! [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
U.S. THEATRICAL Poster
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