Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Butterfly Swords: Yeoh, Yen, and Leung Bring the Wuxia

Who would you rather have your butt kicked by, 2012 NYAFF Star Asia award winner Donnie Yen, Michelle “The Lady” Yeoh, or Tony Leung?  Leung would probably be the safest choice.  You certainly would not pick Yeoh, if you know what’s good for you.  She is characteristically lethal and rather Machiavellian, but also unexpectedly vulnerable in Michael Mak’s Butterfly Swords, which Well Go USA releases today on DVD.

Once fellow street urchins, Meng Sing-wan, Lady Ko, and Yip Cheung have become the top assassins of the Happy Forest martial arts alliance.  Lady Ko is the brains of the operation, reporting directly to Eunuch Tsao.  Unfortunately, her patron is not long for this earth.  As his nearly dying wish, he asks Ko to retrieve a document proving the conspiracy between a rival eunuch and the rebellious Estates Villa martial arts faction.

Tiring of the assassin’s life, Meng wants to settle down with Butterfly, the daughter of a reformed martial artist.  As far as she knows, he is just a humdrum businessman, who happens to know an awful lot about weapons.  However, since the fate of the empire is at stake, he agrees to go undercover with the Estates Villas.  Ko is supposed to look after Butterfly while he is on assignment, but she rarely holds up her end of the bargain.  Even though Meng considers her “Sister” Ko, she has always carried a torch for her not-really brother.  Likewise, Yip pines for her, but his feelings are definitely not reciprocated.

Given Meng and Ko’s status as sort-of but not really siblings, Butterfly Swords has an odd vaguely Tennessee Williams-V.C. Andres vibe that sets in apart from other wuxia swordplay spectacles.  While consistently preposterous, many of the action sequences choreographed by Ching Siu-tung are quite inventive, particularly a gravity-defying melee atop a bamboo forest (remember, those trees bend but do not break).  The exposition is brief, yet confusing.  However, the longing triangle of Ko, Meng, and Yip works surprisingly well.

The lynchpin of the film is unquestionably Yeoh.  She has some great action scenes with her decapitating scarf, but is also quite convincing expressing Lady Ko’s yearnings and insecurities.  Of the trio, Donnie Yen is probably the one short-changed for screen time as Yip, but he still has some decent drunken fight scenes.  Tony Leung does not have the same presence he would display in subsequent John Woo and Wong Kar-wai masterworks, but he develops some engaging chemistry with Yeoh and Joey Wong’s Butterfly, nonetheless.  It is also nice to see the latter in one of her final screen roles before she entered her semi-retirement (periodically interrupted by special return appearances), even if the character is a bit of a stock type.

Butterfly Swords is not a transcendent wuxia classic, but its willingness to go for broke is certainly entertaining.  Yet, its best moments are the relatively quiet ones.  Fans of Yeoh and Yen (and isn’t that just about everyone?) should enjoy checking it out on DVD, on-sale today (7/10) from Well Go USA, a company with offices in Texas, China, and Taiwan, so they ought to know and thing or two about brawls and beatdowns.