THE BUTCHER, THE CHEF AND THE SWORDSMAN
(Dao Jian Xao)
In truth though, this is exactly what The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman is not. Crouching Tiger, Hero et al are lushly romantic costume fantasies; The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman comes with a few billowing silks but is mostly dirty, grimy and filled with discordantly cluttered texture. Where these other make a virtue of their sweeping martial arts moves and flights of pure fantasy, The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman features a handful of brief swordfight scenes, nothing that stands out in any way. While these other films were great romances, the characters here are frequently caricatures of the fat and repulsive that turn up in Chinese cinema the character of Eunuch Liu looking for all the world like Jabba the Hut in grotesque geisha makeup.
The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman is visually cluttered and dense, filled with wildly over-the-top caricatures so much so that I spent a good part of the film trying to get a handle on it and work out where it was going. I am not sure in the end I ever achieved that goal. The film is divided into several chapters, each of which tells a different story about one character. You finally gather that this is intended as some equivalent of the narrative structure of Pulp Fiction (1994) a series of separate and non-linear stories that overlap. The only one of these that I felt came to life in any way was the segment regarding the mute who becomes apprentice to the master chef and then creates the banquet as part of a cleverly wound plot to assassinate Eunuch Liu. Here there is a fine sense of the formalism and just the right degree of larger-than-life embellishment that takes place in Crouching Tiger, Hero etc. The final story about the butchers marriage to the prostitute comes with a downer of a twist ending that involves another of the elaborate charades we get in Chinese fantasy.
Rather than any lush sweep, director Wuershan leaps in with elements of the bizarre. Everything from the prostitutes rapping songs about eating, flashbacks in sketchy hand-drawn animation to wacky graphics that cut away to offer animated diagrams of how people were killed, even a fight sequence that turns into a videogame at one point. I am not exactly sure what any of these add to the film. If anything, it serves to turn The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman into some bizarre Wu Xia equivalent of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010).
Director Wuershan stayed in genre material with his subsequent films Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2012) and The Ghouls (2015).