Butterfly Swords (1993) – By Duane L. Martin

It’s not as rare of an occurrence as I’d like it to be that I come across a film that I just don’t know how to describe with regard to the synopsis I usually begin my reviews with. Unfortunately, Butterfly Swords is one of those films. As such, rather than trying to write out some rambling and rather confusing synopsis of the film, I’m going to do a series of bullet points relating to various characters in the film, to give you some idea of what it’s about.

When they were children, Lady Ko (Michelle Yeoh), Meng Sing-Wan (Tony Leung) and Yip Cheung (Donnie Yen) took an oath to always be brothers and sisters, along with one other girl who shows up later in the film as a famous prostitute. Now that they’re grown up…

Lady Ko serves a Eunuch martial arts lord called Eunuch Tsao. He’s ordered her and her people to kill Lord Suen Yuk Pa (Elvis Tsui) and to steal a letter he carries on him exposing a conspiracy between he and another martial arts master to wipe out the other martial arts masters and then to rebel against the emperor. She has a secret love for Sing, but unfortunately he’s deeply in love with Butterfly (Joey Wang), who is pregnant with his child. Lady Ko is relentless about dealing with her enemies, and her main goal in life is to be in the house that controls the martial arts world, but she has an enemy that she never suspected, and by the time she finds out who her true enemy is, it may be too late.

Sing is a sword master who, as stated above, is deeply in love with Butterfly and wants to plan a life with her, but he’s bound by duty to help Ko to defeat Lord Suen and expose the conspiracy.

Yip has been secretly in love with Ko since they were children, and has tried to hide his feelings, but Butterfly is well aware of his unrequited love. Unfortunately for him, Ko doesn’t return his feelings, yet he still hangs in there and helps them in their quest to defeat Suen.

Prince Cha (Jimmy Lin) is the Emperor’s son who was sent to learn about various things with regard to state and whatever else from Eunoch Tsao. He’s currently living there in the compound with them, and is a very playful, friendly young man who excells at playing with a ball and displays amazing martial arts skill, but in a playful way rather than as a fighter…at least until things get serious at the end.

Butterfly is Sing’s soulmate and the daughter of a martial arts master. He tends to hide his martial arts skill from her because she doesn’t want him to be a fighter, after growing up in a family and seeing all the pain and suffering the fighters go through. She doesn’t want that for him. She’s a very gentle and lighthearted soul.

Lord Suen Yuk Pa is a martial arts master who is plotting with another martial arts master to wipe out not only Lady Ko and her "Happy Forest", but also all the other martial arts masters, as stated above. He has a son who’s trying to learn martial arts, but he’s rather doofy and not very good at it. Fortunately for him, his main henchman, Liu Chung Yuen (Ka Ting Lee), is another martial arts master who’s on an equal level with Sing when it comes to skills.

Ok, hopefully you were able to gather something of what this film is about from all that. Now let’s get to the review…

Martial arts films tend to fall into several categories. This particular one falls into the "wire fighting" category, where flying through the air and fighting with weapons takes precedence over well choreographed, fast paced hand to hand kung fu battles. Some people really enjoy these types of films, but I’ve personally never cared for them much because I prefer my kung fu films to be more realistic and "grounded" in the fighting. That’s not to say I can’t enjoy the wire style films sometimes. It just depends on the film. This one, I enjoyed…to a point.

While this film is enjoyable and has some really cool fighting and effects, it’s unfortunately lacking in focus of story. This film is really all over the place, with all kinds of personal relationship stuff between the main characters gettnig mixed in and interspersed between the other story elements of them trying to stop the conspirator’s plans for rebellion. Then we have a whole section of the film that takes us back to when they were children and shows us how they met Lady Ko and joined her gang, and how it came to be that they all swore to be brothers and sisters and to share any dangers they encountered in their lives. That was an entire section of the film that could have been quickly revealed in a short conversation between Ko, Sing and Yip, talking about their childhood memories. That long flashback section of the film really broke everything away from the other main elements of the story, to show us something that really wasn’t all that important.

The Butterfly character was never adequately delved into either. She’s important enough to be mentioned in the title of the film, but she really ends up being little more than a minor character, serving as Sing’s love interest and future wife. I have something else to talk about with the title of the film, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The strange jumping around this film does from one plot point to another is only one of the issues I had with this film. Another big issue is that several of the characters were really unbalanced in their behavior and attitudes. Lady Ko in particular is one minute telling Yip to not think of her as a woman, and that all she cares about is to become head of the martial arts world, and then later on she’s expressing to Sing how much she cares about him and basically asking him to see her as a woman. Lord Suen seems like this really shrewd and serious guy, and yet he has a doofy son and makes a colossal mistake in taking an undercover Sing into his house and quickly elevating him to his number two henchman, on equal footing with his main henchman, Liu. Then there’s Prince Cha, who really didn’t seem to have any place in this film at all until the big fight at the end, and then suddenly he’s showing off martial arts skill that’s way better than anything Sing and Ko are doing, leaving you sitting there watching it and thinking to yourself, "What the hell??? Where did that come from???"

The fighting in the film ranges from somewhat lame to really pretty awesome depending on the scene. There’s this one move that Sing and Ko do together where she flings him like an arrow and he basically flies right through the body of the enemy, which as you can imagine, is not only messy, but pretty much ends the fight with a quickness. Prince Cha uses his ball in his fighting technique to great effect, keeping the enemy off balance as he flies around at top speed basically kicking the crap out of his opponent. It’s great fun to watch, which only makes it sadder that he really had no part in the film until the end.

Now let’s talk about the release itself. This particular release from Well Go USA struck me as rather unusual, because most of the films I receive from them are release on both blu-ray and DVD. This film was only released on DVD, and once I watched it, it became clear as to why that was the case. The source materials used for this film look like they came from a standard definition source, like a very good quality VHS tape. Whatever the case was with the source materials, trying to master it in high def probably wouldn’t have worked all that well. As it is, in its normal format, it looks just fine. When I maxed it to the screen however, the upscaling made it a little blurry, but not horribly so.

This film has been released under the title Butterfly Swords, but that isn’t the real title of the film, nor does it make sense to call it that, as it doesn’t reflect the content of the story. The real title of the film is Butterfly & Sword, which makes far more sense. You have Butterfly, and Sing is the Sword, and they’re a couple, so that title actually makes more sense. Butterfly Swords sounds more like a weapon or a fighting style or something, neither of which apply to the film.

That’s the minor problem with this release. Before I mention another more major problem that has nothing to do with the film itself, or the quality thereof, let me just preface this by saying that I have the utmost respect for Well Go USA as a company. Their Asian film releases have been nothing short of amazing. That said, there’s an issue with the cover of this one that seems to have slipped through the cracks, which shows a lack of editorial control on the part of whoever is supposed to proof and finalize these things. The issue is with the synopsis on the back cover. Not only is it unbelievably confusing, but almost all of the character names are either completely wrong, or just spelled wrong. Lady Ko is called Lady Kao, Lord Suen Yuk Pa is called Sun Yun-Po, Sing is called Mon. Yip is called Yeh, and there are story aspects mentioned in the synopsis that aren’t even mentioned in the film. The synopsis as a whole is obviously about this particular film. I just don’t know how it could have gone to production with so many errors in it. Something else I find rather bizarre is that even on the film’s IMDB listing, all the character names are correct, as are the names of those who played them, and yet in the descrption of the film at the top of the listing, they call Michelle Yeoh, Michelle Khan. That has nothing to do with Well Go USA or this release, but I did find it rather odd. As a side note, if you go to the film’s page on the Well Go USA website, the description is perfectly coherent and all the character names are correct, so I’m really not sure what happened with the cover.

The disc itself has no special features. You get the movie and that’s it.

While it may sound like I’m not all that keen on this release, I actually did enjoy the film quite a bit, and certainly enough to recommend it. The fighting is quite fun at times, with bodies blowing apart and people getting sliced up like they’ve been through a food processor, and the characters are people you’ll enjoy watching, despite the issues with the story that cause them to feel awkward at times. The performances in the film more than made up for the story issues, but the story issues are a nagging concern throughout the film. The story could have definitely used more work and a lot more focus on the important aspects, and less focus on the unimportant ones.

So yes, I can recommend it, but only marginally. I’ve always loved Michelle Yeoh, and Tony Leung, Donnie Yen and Jimmy Lin are all great as well. I know that all of these guys have a lot of fans out there, and their fans will want to see this film for sure, though I dare say that they’ve all been in better ones.

If you’d like to find out more about this release, you can check out its page on the Well Go USA website here, and if you’d like to pick yourself up a copy of the DVD, you can grab it from Amazon here, or from any of the other usual outlets.