The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman DVD Review: Three Tales, One Blade, Zero Entertainment

I was hoping for some originality in this film, a fresh take on martial arts period drama. It boasts a young director colorfully named Wuershan, so I figured anyone audacious enough to go by one odd name in the fairly rigid Chinese film industry was bound to bring some flair to the table. Sure enough, it’s unlike anything else in the genre, with a non-stop assault on the senses punctuated by quick cuts, a hip modern soundtrack, and even an animated segment, but unfortunately our young director treated plot like a second-class citizen and populated his tale with such a menagerie of unappealing misfit characters, or more accurately caricatures, that we’re left with no investment in the outcome of the tale.

That tale centers on the three titular owners of a mythical blade crafted from the five best swords in the martial arts world. Must be a pretty awesome blade, right? Wrong. It’s a kitchen cleaver. The film recounts in flashback how each of the owners won and lost the blade, finally bringing the tale up to the present in time for the final fight for the blade. But story is entirely secondary in the grand scheme of things here, as it seems that Mr. Wuershan was more interested in crafting a calling card for himself than anything approaching plot development.

Wuershan’s tools include a bizarre hip-hop musical interlude starring an obese madam and her brothel workers; occasional split screen; a washed-out opening sequence punctuated by bursts of color, usually red; a fight scene shot like a video game including life meters and scores; and a filthy, grimy cast of oddball actors seemingly picked more for their distinctive physical characteristics than their acting talent. Only Japanese import Masanobu Ando has any appeal or talent, marking his involvement as the biggest mystery in the film.

I’m all for directors trying new things, but when the results are so utterly uninspired and seemingly cobbled together more for shock value than in service to the plot, it may be time to head back to film school to learn some actual skills. Visual flair may have served him adequately in the music video world, but the global cinema market expects quite a bit more for our box office and DVD dollars. Seriously, I’ve gleaned far more enjoyment from the most rudimentary and underfunded Japanese direct-to-DVD martial arts films than this one, leaving me with no reason to recommend this to anyone, not even midnight-movie lovers.

If I still haven’t dissuaded you, the film is available on DVD on Tuesday, September 27th, as part of Fox’s relatively recent World Cinema label. You may notice that the DVD also bears a “Doug Liman presents” banner for whatever marketing bump that adds.

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Steve Geise

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