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Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Cooks up more than it butchers."
3 stars

"The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman" certainly doesn't lack for style; it's got more styles than you can shake a stick at. At times, overwhelmingly so - though the movie is often quite funny and exciting, director Wuershan might have been served by a little more clarity and a little less flourish.

The title characters each have their own story, united by a cleaver made of black iron. The Butcher (Liu Xiaoye) is smitten with a lovely courtesan, Madame Mei (Kitty Zhang Yuqi), but even if such a lowly person were to be allowed near her, he would have to fight his way past the brutish "Big Beard". A grotesque eunuch with a reputation for killing those whose cooking displeases him is coming to sample a chef's signature eight-course meal, so the chef (Mi Dan) chooses a mute but talented kitchen servant (Masanobu Ando) to be his apprentice. And Fat Tang (You Benchang), a village blacksmith who was once the kingdom's greatest swordmaker, is approached by a swordsman (Ashton Xu) who wishes him to forge him a blade out of a lump of iron melted down from the weapons of five great warriors.

The nested telling of these stories is actually very well-done, which is not the case for many movies that tell multiple stories and jump around the timeline. Wuershan and his co-writers (working from a short story by An Changhe) make this feel like the natural way to tell the tale, and the relationship of characters and events is always fairly clear, even when we're four levels deep in flashbacks and unreliable narrators. The frantic cross-cutting, switching of film stocks, and stylization is a good match to the film's broad, zany sense of humor. It's a movie filled with broadly defined and played characters, occasional fourth-wall breaking, and the sort of mugging for the audience that can seem unsophisticated but which are a direct descendant of the Chinese opera which occasionally shows up in the movie.

Not all of the director's gimmicks succeed, though. Musical numbers, animation, and the use of grainy 8mm film stock all manage to work reasonably well at various times, but a couple of devices near the end are real issues: A fight scene suddenly turning into a videogame, energy bars and all, winds up being a jarring anachronism that doesn't make sense in context the way it did in something like Scott Pilgrim, a goof on Taiwanese CGI recreations (yes, readers in the future, that was sort of a thing in 2010) has that issue but also serves to point out that the preceding action sequence was unclear. It's not a bad bit, but I'm not sure getting a laugh while making the audience realize that a big action scene was poorly staged/shot/edited is a good trade.

The cast does well in delivering what is asked of them - there hasn't been a finer selection of double takes at fate taking a sudden and usually disadvantageous turn assembled. However, it is the sort of comedy where one's mileage can certainly vary. Liu Xiaoye, for instance, is playing a brash, loud buffoon, and doing it well, but it's probably a good thing that "Chopper" is only around for the start and end of the movie, as he can wear on the audience even in that limited amount of time. You Benchang and Ashton Xu play their part of the movie fairly straight, but with a certain grandeur. Masanobu Ando and Mi Dan probably strike the best balance - often funny and somewhat broad (Ando, playing a mute, gets to give a fun physical performance), but with clever, well-played moments; one scene between them is a fairly wonderful bit of playing against expectations as they react to treachery.

Indeed, the chef's section ("Vengeance") is probably the best all around; it's got the best collection of characters, the best version of many of the jokes, a brief (and delicious) detour into food-movie territory, and the grotesquely obese Eunuch Liu. Above all, it's the best balance of relating a legend and telling jokes. It's possible, after all, for the audience to miss the really clever bit to the swordsman's ("Greed"), while the excess of the butcher's ("Desire") can wear the audience out even as it's getting some of the biggest laughs.

A movie like this is almost guaranteed to be uneven, though - with each segment mostly having its own separate cast and style, having favorites and least-favorites is natural. This one does work better as a whole than most, and when the good bits are lined up against the bad, the good definitely comes out ahead.

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originally posted: 03/20/11 14:35:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  18-Mar-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 27-Sep-2011


  DVD: 27-Sep-2011

Directed by

Written by
  Zhang Jiajia
  Ma Luoshan
  Tang Que

  Masanobu Ando
  You Benchang
  Liu Xiaoye
  Ashton Xu
  Kitty Zhang Yuqi

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