Hong Kong wuxia film loosely based on the 1973 novel “Liuxing Hudie Jian” (“Meteor, Butterfly, Sword”) by Gu Long. Directed by Michael Mak, the film stars Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Jimmy Lin, Joey Wong and Donnie Yen.
Tony Leung Ka-fai plays “Meng Sing Wan”, an assassin for hire and the object of Butterfly’s affection. Tony Leung is an actor and singer who rose to prominence in John Woo’s “Hard Boiled”, starring opposite Chow Yun-fat. He has had notable roles in “A Better Tomorrow III”, “She Shoots Straight”, “To Catch a Thief”, “Ashes of Time”, “Election” and recently played Wong Fei-hung’s father, Wong Kei-ying, in “Rise of the Legend”.
Starring as “Sister Ko”, is Michelle Yeoh, the leader of the group of assassins known as Happy Forest that Meng Sin Wan is a member of. Michelle Yeoh is one of Hong Kong’s leading action actresses, and will soon be seen reprising her role in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: The Green Destiny”, a follow-up to her biggest international hit.
Taiwanese actress Joey Wong, best known as the beautiful ghost Nip Siu-sin in the “A Chinese Ghost Story” series of films, plays “Butterfly”, who is in love with Meng Sin Wan. Jimmy Lin, a Taiwanese singer, actor, and race car driver (!), plays “Prince Cha”, a charming but immature heir. Elvis Tsui is “Master Suen Yuk Pa” of the rival Elite Villas clan. Having a prolific film and television career from the seventies through to the present, he is best known for his roles in the “Sex and Zen” films, “The Storm Riders” and “A Man Called Hero”.
Veteran actor Chang Kuo-chu plays “Eunuch Tsao/Li Shu Tin”. Chang’s acting debut was the 1963 film ”Sixteen Years of Love and Hate”. In a long career he has acted in various genres, including romance, costume drama, melodrama, horror and comedy. Chang was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 4th Hong Kong Film Awards for his role in 1984’s ”An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty”. His sons Chang Chen and Chang Han, are also actors.
Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen plays “Yip Cheung”. Having played villains opposite Tony Leung in “New Dragon Gate Inn”, and opposite Jet Li in “Once Upon a Time in China II”, Donnie returned to being one of the good guys in “Butterfly and Sword”. Yip Chuen-Chan, a Taiwanese actress with some forty film credits plays “Ho Ching”, an undercover agent of the Happy Forest clan.
Out of respect for her father, who was once a renowned martial artist, Butterfly has renounced the martial arts world. She is deeply in love with Meng Sing Wan, a fisherman and poet. From time to time, Sing tells her he has to go away on business to earn money, but he is in fact killer-for-hire.
Sing is a member of the Happy Forest, a group of assassins led by Sister Ko, but he is tired of killing for a living. Yip Cheung, another member of the group, is Sing’s best friend since childhood. The both of them, along with Sister Ko, and a girl called Ho Ching grew up together, forming the Happy Forest. Yip is in love with Sister Ko, but is afraid to tell her. However, Ko only has eyes for Sing, but Sing regards her only as an older sister.
Ko is given a mission by the Grand Eunuch Tsao, who instructs her to steal a letter from the hands of Master Suen of the Elites Villa sect, which was given to him by Grand Eunuch Li, Tsao’s adversary in the Royal Court. Ko tells Sing to fake his own death, then enter Suen’s service as a lone swordsman. Sing impresses Suen with his skills and soon earns his trust. He meets Suen’s girl, who looks remarkably like the Ho Ching that once disappeared many years ago. Suen sees Sing’s interest in his woman, and so, gives her to him.
As Sing and the Happy Forest fight to retrieve the message, all is not as it seems.
“Butterfly and Sword” is an insane, mixed up film, featuring insane, mixed up action. The majority of the choreography is from the world of fantasy, with lots of wire work and flying about. Much of it is quite bloody and violent too.
The first action scene quickly sets the tone. Ming Sing Wan drops out of a tree into a longbow, and fires himself like an arrow through a convoy of soldiers who appear to explode as he strikes them! When Sister Ko arrives it is by a sedan chair carried along the tree tops which then shoots out fifty foot silk ribbons for her to fly along. Using an extendable sleeve, she pulls the head off of a spy she is interrogating.
The next action scene sees a group of assassins fly into the Elite Villas by using their throwing blades like a helicopter’s. The ensuing fight in the courtyard features many amputations and beheadings as the blades fly around the guards. Inside the villa, the action is more grounded, as Donnie Yen’s Yip Cheung makes his introduction. Thankfully Donnie gets to demonstrate some of his kicking and weapon skills amongst the fast and furious, twirling wire work.
When Ko and Sing are attacked by a mysterious masked swordsman there is a dazzling, albeit brief, duel among flaming Chinese lanterns. The choreography improves when Sing uses his trusty sword to take on Guandao wielding henchmen. The action is frenetic but makes good use of the required weapon skills.
As fans of the genre know, you can’t have a swordplay movie without a fight in a bamboo forest! Again, there is much flying about, but there is a nice mix of the balletic grace of Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen’s famous jumping triple kick. Ho Ching has a great chain versus sword battle, and as with the previous fights, the interior setting reduces the degree of reliance on wires. The extended finale features plenty of action and has just about everything thrown into it. Swords, flying, high-kicks, lots of limb amputations, blood, and apparently magic powers!
This film is bizarre! I think the theme is that you cannot suppress an emotion such as love, even if you are a hero assassin!
The storytelling, editing and direction are all over the place. The camera angles are nearly all low and pointing upwards, with a mix of crossfades and rapid cuts during most of the action sequences.
Having said that, there are some inspired moments. There is a musical interlude with a masked Chinese opera performer displaying his martial arts to a traditional drummer’s beat. The pounding drum builds into the crescendo of the inevitable duel among the Chinese lanterns, which is a feast for the eyes in itself. The sword versus Guandao fight, and Ho Ching’s chain fight are especially good, featuring much more orderly choreography and filming. There is a beautiful non-action scene between Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung when he confronts her about her motives, shot in soft pink light, with rose petals floating around. The performances of the lead actors are, on the whole, pretty good, especially Michelle Yeoh’s.
If you enjoy the over-the-top action choreography of Asian fantasy films, there is probably enough here for you to enjoy. If you are looking for logic, subtlety, cutting edge filmmaking and story-telling, this won’t be your cup of tea!
- Although Michelle Yeoh is dubbed by other actresses in the Cantonese and Mandarin soundtracks of the film, she sings the theme song heard during the end credits of both versions.
- The novel on which this is based was originally adapted as the 1976 Shaw Brothers classic “Killer Clans”, directed by Chor Yuen.
- The fight in the bamboo forest inspired a similar scene in “House of Flying Daggers”. (See our review of it here: https://kungfukingdom.com/house-of-flying-daggers-movie-review/)
- On it’s original release, the film had a very strange, sudden ending which removed the death of one of the main characters. Some DVD versions have the option of including the extended ending.
Film Rating: 5/10