Any movie that features one man flying through the air before slicing another guy’s face clean off within the first three minutes and concludes with a swordsman using his female companion as a bow to launch himself in the air like a human arrow so he can rip straight through a bad guy’s body pretty much defies criticism. (And I didn’t even mention the part where the bad guy comes back a few minutes later, despite the fact that he’d also been decapitated.) Believe me when I say I haven’t even scratched the surface of the insanity that is Butterfly Swords.
I mean, this 1993 movie can’t even decide if it wants to be called Butterfly and Sword (the title that appears during the opening credits and on the film’s IMDb page) or Butterfly Swords (which is what’s plastered on the latest DVD release, out July 10), not to mention the fact that the confusing description on the back of the new DVD case gives away the entire movie!
The plot — something about a close-knit trio of assassins charged with intercepting a letter between malevolent forces that are conspiring to control the martial arts world — is almost completely incomprehensible due to bad writing and worse subbing. Besides consistent grammatical errors and typos (“…it’s perfect forstar gazing”), the subtitles failed to pop up during a crucial moment when a major character angrily carves a message into the ground. (My guess is it said something along the lines of, “If you don’t speak Mandarin, screw you!”) It also didn’t help that all of the characters’ names in the movie are almost completely different from what appears on the DVD packaging. In case you didn’t get the hint, I’m saying that you should keep the disc and toss the DVD case because, unless you’re looking for a laugh, it’s pretty much useless. (Wait, you need somewhere to keep the disc! New plan: keep the case, but ignore it completely.)
So if Butterfly Swords is such a gigantic mess — it’s hard to keep track of who is supposed to be a eunuch, who is trying to assassinate who, and there’s an absurdly abrupt ending — why did I wind up enjoying this movie?
A lot of the credit has to go to Hong Kong superstars Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tomorrow Never Dies), Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love, Infernal Affairs) and Donnie Yen (Hero, Ip Man). The pre-superstardom performers somewhat ground this ridiculous movie with their strong work as righteous assassins. Surprisingly, they are at their best when they’re playing out the movie’s love triangle/square. Ko (Yeoh) has served as a protector to the other two since they were all kids and is in love with Sing (Leung). Unfortunately for her, Sing only thinks of her as an older sister and is in love with Butterfly (Joey Wang, bringing a light, goofy charm). Meanwhile, Yip (Yen) is madly in love with Ko, but she doesn’t notice because she only has eyes for Sing, so Yip drowns his sorrows in alcohol. Yeoh, in particular, is radiant and impressive in playing both her character’s bitchiness and vulnerability. Then again, maybe I was drawn to this aspect of the movie because it was one of the few things I could easily understand.
Another thing that’s easy to understand: bodies getting ripped apart like tissue paper and heads getting lopped off as if decapitation were going out of style. Butterfly Swords eschews reality-based combat (think Jackie Chan) in favor of fantastical wire work that incorporates elements of magic. (If you’re not a fan of wire work in your action movies, I suggest you keep moving.) Although this style can be extremely effective when it is incorporated into a relatively realistic plot (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably the most famous example), directors Kevin Chu and Michael Mak gleefully go in the other direction and take full advantage of the inherent ridiculousness of people flying around. As a result, the movie has a wonderfully warped sense of humor and still manages to produce some striking visuals.
This DVD version of Butterfly Swords — or whatever the movie is calling itself by the time you watch it — has many, many, many flaws. (Those flaws also include a bad print chock full of specks and other imperfections.) However, I believe all those flaws (even the terrible video quality) add to the charm of this bananas Hong Kong action flick. At the end of the day, how can I totally hate a movie with an awesomely preposterous boss fight and an out-of-left-field fart joke? If you’re a fan of the genre, get some like-minded friends together and pop this one in for a solid amount of laughs and an even greater amount of “huh?!”s.