I’m not insulting you, dear readers — those are merely the three animals that figure prominently in the opening of Hong Kong’s action-comedy “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman,” as broad as its continent’s schoolgirls are sexualized. Doug Liman (director of “Go,” “Swingers” and “The Bourne Identity”) serves as executive producer, which I take to mean he’s merely lending his name to a project he found deserving of a Western hemisphere audience, much the same way Quentin Tarantino presented “Iron Monkey” to our shores. Whatever the level of involvement, thanks, Doug!
Part of the new Fox World Cinema line, “Butcher” is not to be taken seriously. As in, at all. Directed by newbie Wuershan — that’s it, just the uni-moniker — it’s super-slapsticky, right down to the ol’ step-on-the-rake-and-get-hit-in-the-face bit and the potentially offensive joke about a small explosion turning someone blackface (this time due to an aflame wok). This is a movie where literal cartoon sound effects butt up against metal guitar riffs, ADHD cuts, inexplicable hip-hop musical numbers, false backgrounds and sequences of animation. It makes Fox’s recent wacko chopsocky hybrid “The Warrior’s Way” look like a model of restraint.
And I mean that as a compliment.
The movie wears an episodic structure on its colorful sleeve. Segment one, “Desire,” introduces us to the mutton-chopped, decaying-teeth, rotund and repulsive butcher known as Chopper (newcomer Liu Xiaoye). He’s brought his nest egg to the brothel known as House of a Thousand Flowers to try and win the hand of the lovely Madam Mei (Kitty Zhang, “CJ7”)
The second segment, “Vengeance,” centers around a beggar (Masanobu Ando, “Sukiyaki Western: Django”) supposedly rendered mute by a snake bite, and sentenced to culinary servitude for his crimes of burglary. There, utensil tossing abounds, like a feudal version of “Cocktail,” and the newbie chef learns how to make the master’s fabled Eight Courses with an iron kitchen cleaver, that does magic things with asparagus.
The young, handsome chef actually has the ol’ familial revenge on the brain, which leads right into “Greed,” in which said cleaver gets a backstory, and the stories of our three title persons eventually merge. The cleaver is made from the melted-down weapons of the greatest swordsmen, which we learn via a scratchy, classroom instructional film (it’s actually clips from 1984’s martial-arts classic “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”).
The chef wants payback from the morbidly obese Eunuch (Xie Ning), whose girth rivals Jabba the Hutt, leading to one of the grossest/funniest outhouse gags — emphasis on “gag” — since “Slumdog Millionaire” (another Fox World Cinema offering). I’m still trying to decide which scene in “Greed” was weirder: when Chopper slices a horse completely in half down its middle, or the video game-style replay of said stunt?
The point in all this? Hell if I know. Hell if the movie evens knows, but I had a hell of a time. —Rod Lott