Any questions about the involvement of Doug Liman, the oft-frenzied Bourne Identity director who’s given a “presented by” credit on The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman, are quickly answered by its overdriven opening sequence, which features more cuts in three minutes than most films manage over two hours. It’s inevitable that things will slow down from this impossible pace, but while the first film from director Wuershan does noticeably slacken, it never loses its initial jitteriness. The result is an insistently bizarre product, which might feel exciting and transgressive were it not so insistently stupid.
This is a swirling clusterfuck of a movie, one that never pretends at an interest in coherence or sustained narrative, instead trading in grotesques, slapstick, and superlative characters. Everyone who appears in the film is the most extreme example of something, from Chopper (Liu Xiaoye), the world’s most revolting, foolish butcher, to Fat Tang (You Benchang), the greatest sword-maker turned most pathetic old man, to Big Beard (Senggerenquin), a dark figure of hellish intensity. Yet there’s also an anarchic spirit that purposely undercuts all of these portrayals. The film establishes heroes and villains only to exploit the potential for quick reversals these kinds of roles can engender. Its superlative characters, except for one cheeky submission to convention, all end up in wallowing in ignominy and failure, their plans ruined or their invincibility shattered.
Time and again the film inflates situations before anti-climactically popping them. A climactic showdown cuts out at the moment of impact, reverting to a cheap-looking computer simulation of what just occurred. In the middle section, a complicated revenge plot is wasted when someone falls into a cesspool. This gleeful toying with audience expectation is probably satirical, but the overwhelming stupidity of the movie, which delights in face-slaps, groin shots, and falls in the mud, makes it seem like it’s just another hammy joke. So much of the film is so loud and brutally dumb that it’s almost impossible to imagine there’s much of a mind inside.
Wuershang’s direction ranges from nauseating to capable, but the director is too busy with mixing up a slurry of postmodern techniques, abortive fight scenes, and noisy set pieces to spend any time on fundamentals. Worst of all is the time spent with the butcher, the one of these three interlocking stories that seems to eat up the most screen time. Accompanied by a food-crazed sidekick, he forms a deranged clown duo that does nothing but scream, squabble, and fall over each other. It’s moronic, beyond-thin characters like this who inevitably signal that the film’s potential sardonic side, its outright refusal to engage in the standard heroics of wuxia epics, is more prankishness than anything else.