Butterfly Sword (1993)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-08-16
Summary: Could have been a great movie
“Butterfly and Sword” begins with a very violent image. The scene cuts between a man writing and sealing a long letter and cobras flaring their hoods. Unexpectedly a swordsman flies into the room. The next shot is the bloody face—not the head, just the face—of the writer falling onto one of the snakes. That is hard to top as an introduction to an extravagantly violent wuxia pien. In the next scene in which Tony Leung attacks a caravan by firing himself as an arrow from a giant bowstring string between trees—the escorting soldiers explode as he cuts through them.

If the script matched the choreography it would be a great movie. Unfortunately story abandons the straightforward plotline to examine the secret longings of the main characters which become less and less interesting. Michelle Yeoh walking into the ornate lair of a grotesquely disfigured eunuch while carrying the head of the eunuch’s enemy in a burlap bag is a nice touch. Michelle mooning over Tony Leung and whining about his new girlfriend, Joey Wong, is a waste of talent.

The story is one of family loyalty, revenge and betrayal in a three way battle to control the world of martial arts. The remaining members of the Happy Forest clan, which also includes Yip Cheung played by Donnie Yen, work for Eunuch Li, a dying counselor of the imperial court. After the head of his former enemy thumps to the floor and Sister Ko (Michelle Yeoh) is rewarded with a large chest of gold, he commissions her to kill Sun Yuk-Pak. Ko is hesitant—or perhaps just bargaining—telling him that it might be an impossible task and that she could easily die in the attempt. She is convinced to take it on when Li’s servants part a curtain and reveal a huge pile of gold dust. Eunuch Li is so convincing that he blurs Ko’s otherwise impeccable survival instincts and she takes on a suicide mission to destroy the Elite Villa clan—whose leader, as it turns out, is on a mission to destroy the Happy Forest clan.

While the plot which drives the action scenes is straightforward—we have to kill them before they kill us, with both sides using every bit of guile and trickery possible—it is interlarded with the romance between Brother Sing and the beautiful Butterfly played by Joey Wong. One cannot fault any director for putting Joey Wong on the screen and here she does as well as she can in a role that is badly written and not at all important to the main thrust of the film--they are more annoying than anything else and serve only to stop teh action dead in its tracks. Idyllic interludes in the treetops with Sing and Butterfly alternate with bloody swordplay in which desperate men and women fight to the death. There is no transition between these disparate scenes—they just happen. Adding to the clumsy structure are flashbacks to the childhood of the main characters--they were tough street kids, kids without homes who were already engaged in robbery and assault.

In addition to the choppy and overly complex structure of “Butterfly and Sword”, the characters aren’t developed, so that it is difficult to identify with Ko, Sing and Yip. As Yip Donnie Yen doesn’t have much acting to do. He is the odd man out, in love with Ko since they were kids but knowing that his love will never be returned. Twice we see Yip secretly peering at Ko while she bathes which is a good image for his unrequited longing.

Michelle Yeoh is terrific in every minute of the time she is onscreen. Her action scenes are exceptional including one in a fight in a bamboo grove in which she slides down a split bamboo tree with on foot on each piece of the tree. Her fight against the evil Lord Suen, played with leering gusto by Elvis Tsui ends in a shot that pause button fans will love. After using a long scarf as a weapon to kill a number of Suen’s bodyguards while holding him off, she hits a sensational looking if somewhat exaggerated arabesque with the scarf held taught between her raised hand and her extended foot. Her body is the bow, the scarf is the string and Brother Sing is the arrow. She shoots him and his sword straight through Suen.

There are other scenes which show her talent, dramatic range and screen presence. One is at the very end of the movie when she realizes that everything she has accomplished amounts to very little and that she will never be happy. Very little dialog—her face expresses everything. Another is a long scene which is essentially a speech by Ko in which she tells Sing (and the audience) how difficult her life has been. “I haven’t smiled since I was born,” she says. She didn’t choose a life as a killer, it chose her. She hasn’t been able to love, to act and feel like a woman or to enjoy anything. It is touching and eloquent, even given the subtitles. Ko is the picture of restrained agony, realizing that her life can’t be changed although hating what it has made her.

Despite the jagged structure, misuse of talented actors and inability to pull together the different threads of the movie, I recommend “Butterfly and Sword”. Michelle Yeoh at her dramatic best is reason enough. The fight scenes are very well done and the flying is effective and looks effortless. While there is bloody action, it is not lingered over. The villains are full of energy and perfectly vile—Eunuch Li is astonishingly evil and malevolent. The costuming and interior set design is excellent. Especially good are Sing's home on the river, the big hall in which the fight between Elite Villa and Happy Forest takes place and the shadown lair of Eunuch Li.
Reviewer Score: 7