July 5, 2012
Based loosely on the novel Liuxing Hudie Jian by Gu Long, Butterfly Swords a.k.a. Butterfly and Sword (1993) is a prime example of wuxia, a heroic martial arts genre best known in North America from the Ang Lee film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Butterfly Swords contains the best and worst aspects of this genre and may test the patience of its fans.
The city of Jianghu has been plagued by warfare for centuries with its people repressing their emotions in order to stay alive. We meet Meng Sing Wan (Leung), a carefree assassin who belongs to a group of his peers known as the Happy Forest. He flies through the air and easily dispatches a group of soldiers rather efficiently, kidnapping their leader. It’s a nice introduction to the character as we see Sing in action and showing incredible prowess with a bow and arrow. It’s quite the dynamic action sequence.
Afterwards, Sing is relaxing and encounters Lady Ko (Yeoh), the leader of the Happy Forest. They banter and she kids him about a young girl named Butterfly (Wong) who loves Sing but is unaware that he’s an assassin. Sing deceived Butterfly because her father was a killer and on his deathbed told his daughter not to get involved with men like him. Sing’s best friend Yip (Yen) is also an assassin and happens to be sweet on Ko but she likes Sing who sees her as an older sister. Ko is introduced in a flurry of blue, flying in on Sing and eventually dispatching his hostage by beheading the hapless man when he refuses to divulge Li Shu Tin’s plans. Li is the enemy of her master the Grand Eunuch Tsao. Li has teamed up with Suen Yuk Pa and they plan to rebel against the government and rule the martial arts world. Tsao wants Ko to retrieve a letter between Suen and Li that outlines their plans for a rebellion and expose their plot.
While the martial arts sequences are impressively staged, the downtime between them is marked by a dense political plot and sappy soap opera machinations that are often the hallmarks of wuxia. It is interesting to see notable Hong Kong actors Tony Leung and a pre-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Michelle Yeoh mixing it up as deadly assassins but they’ve both been in much better films. The substandard transfer certainly shows the Butterfly Swords’ age – the film looks like it was taken from a bootleg video tape! It’s not surprising considering how obscure this film is but it is rather unfortunate nonetheless.