Chopper is a boorish, mutton-chopped butcher whose dream is to buy the hand of the high-class Madame Mei. But she already has a suitor: a savage warrior from the desert who wields a very large sword. Chopper stumbles upon a mighty weapon – a cleaver forged from the swords of the world’s top martial artists – that comes with a tale about the Mute, a chef, and his aging master who must prepare dinner for a murderous gourmand. With a titillating eight-course meal and precise knife work, the two stories come crashing together.

By
1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM

2.5
Flimsy narrative blunts action epic.

One gets the impression that the whirling iron cleaver at the centre of Wuershan’s action epic Swordsman had undue influence during the editing of this vivid but at times frantically incomprehensible picture.

The Mongolian-born director, adapting The Legend of the Kitchen Knife short story series, brings a multiple cuts-per-second dynamic to his debut feature. As with many international directors who step up from the world of advertising, he fails to fully grasp the notion that large-screen projections of visuals designed to leave an impression over 30 seconds don’t translate into an audience-friendly 90-odd minutes. The inherently vapid nature of the ad-industry aesthetic is exacerbated by the relative lack of narrative to warrant the stylistic energy. Rarely have terms like 'style-over-substance’ and 'form-over-content’ been more appropriate.

The film is a collection of three character journeys, their story strands representing 'desire’, 'vengeance’ and 'greed’. All are bound by the powers of a large broad blade, crafted from the iron of five legendary swords. The first protagonist we meet is a rotund, bearded butcher (Liu Xiaoye), a shrieking weasel of a man who obsesses over Madame Mei (Kitty Zhang Yuqi), the most beautiful courtesan in The House of a Thousand Flowers, the local whorehouse overseen by a tart-mouthed, grotesquely made-up madam (Dong Lifan). The butcher’s arc tops and tails the overall story but it is the least interesting by some measure; particularly grating are the shrill screams and hammy acting of Liu and the singing-dancing chorus of prostitutes who giggle and whine incessantly.

We next meet the warrior Dugu Cheng (Ashton Xu), seen heartlessly robbing his father’s grave to secure the black iron from which he has crafted his own blade; earnest acting, willowy set design and some neat swordsmanship highlight this sequence. Finally, the film hits its stride with the story of the mute chef (Masanobu Ando) who has sharpened his culinary skills so that he may enter the court of the evil Great Eunuch Liu (Xie Ning) and act out his own form of retribution. This segment featuring beautifully rendered Asian delicacies and some thankfully silent passages, allows for small amounts of character nuance to emerge; when Wuershan stops to take a breath, the film is all the better for it. It is fleeting, though – we are soon thrust back into the headache-inducing world of the butcher and his puerile desires. The film finishes on a flowery, unconvincing splash of predestined romance.

One cannot begrudge the director’s confidence and vision. He utilises numerous techniques to convey his graphic novel-like take on feudal China: black-and-white animation, traditional theatre, literal splashes of video-game action, even the cheeky use of those badly drawn Korean news-broadcast cartoons. (In this case, depicting how the cleaver slices a horse in half.) But it is all delivered with such a bullying, rat-a-tat incoherency that the technical prowess and narrative responsibilities are all but smothered.

A critical and commercial failure in its homeland, it is the second film released via the domestic Chinese division of 20th Century Fox (after Tony Chan’s and Wing Shya’s holiday romp, Hot Summer Days). The corporate giant then formed an allegiance with U.S. director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) to present the film at its recent Toronto Festival screening and lend his name to its marketing. It is hard to say how much influence Liman had over the finished product, but the already jittery directorial eye of Wuershan may have been better served by a collaborator who favours a less-is-more approach.