Director: Michael Mak
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Jimmy Lin, Joey Wong, Elvis Tsui
Butterfly & Sword is a film in which I carry strong fondness. It was among the first imported HK DVDs that I ordered upon getting my first job and discovering the joys of the internet. Featuring a roster of actors that I loved, I recall viewing it many times in years past. Well Go USA brings the film back to the United States, with a minor re-titling (Butterfly Swords) to, I assume, work up the Donnie Yen early film angle.
Here’s the plot: 3 former street urchins Ko (Michelle Yeoh), Chung (Donnie Yen), and Sing (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) have risen through the ranks to become one of the most powerful martial arts clans in the land. Accomplished through assassination and trial by fire, the three have formed a strong bond throughout the years. When Sing finds a girl to love in Butterfly (Joey Wang), things do not change too much, though the corners of an unrequited love polygon are explored. When a rival clan, and its powerful leader (Elvis Tsui), attempt a power grab, the longtime friends set about their own plan in motion to retain ownership of the ‘strongest’ title amidst a blood-soaked and high flying campaign.
Tony Leung’s Sing is without a doubt the main star of the film. He is charismatic and as good as he always in, even his competently executed action scenes. In the scenes when you can tell it is actually him, he has good sword movement that belies his little martial arts training. Donnie Yen is amazing with his sword and is a dynamo of action on screen. He has a number of scenes with Joey Wang that is genuinely funny and break up the quite graphic violence with scenes of comedy. Joey Wang is charming in her role; fans of Chinese Ghost Story will find a lot to like about her performance here. She doesn’t really have a lot to do, but she’s a welcome addition to the cast in any case. The true standout in the film is Michelle Yeoh. She is beautiful, cool, and aloof and delivers some real gravitas to her dramatic scenes. Her action scenes are great, including her characters human ‘bow and arrow’ technique which she uses with the aid of Tony Leung’s Sing. She is graceful, beautiful, and always a treat to watch.
The film’s action is quite wire heavy. Superior martial arts skills are demonstrated with amazing feats of human strength and powers. Standouts in action include a great bamboo forest fight with Yeoh and Yen that is both inventive and gruesome. Also, in the film’s final sequence of fights, Jimmy Lin comes out of nowhere with a magic ball technique that is as fun to watch today as when I was a kid. The double team finale with Yeoh and Leung’s characters is among my favorite on screen fantasy techniques; it is ridiculous but badass all the same.
In terms of look the film is one of the higher budgeted films to come out the era, though it has a lot of gaffes typical of the film system in Hong Kong. Wires are visible at times and stuntmen, particularly Tony’s, don’t do a good job of believable impersonation. These are things that are evident sure, but as part of this type of movie experience all the same. Of note is the fact that the R1 release from Well Go is only marginally better than the previous Tai Seng and Mei Ah releases. I wonder if a good quality version is in the works in HK but the film deserves the full HD treatment. The music is wholly memorable, with the theme song coming back into my head vividly after hearing the first few notes. Action scenes carry the great twang of the guzheng used to embellish fight scenes.
Butterfly & Sword is definitely among the better wuxia films to come out of the 90’s many offerings. An all star cast, coupled with the strong and inventive choreography of Ching Siu Tung, the film gives to the table a lot of entertainment value. However, it falls into the same trap that many adapted wuxia novel do as well, a highly convoluted plot and abrupt shift in tones. While the film is a fun nostalgic rewatch, there are many flaws to be found among the non-initiated. While personally I enjoy the oddness that is a staple of the genre, it most definitely will turn off newcomers to the genre. Nonetheless, the film is great fun and a chance to see some of the legends of HK cinema on screen in a solid effort.
You may enjoy this film if you like: Dragon Inn, The Three Swordsmen, Moon Warriors
Special thanks go out to Well Go for providing a viewing copy of their recent release.