Butterfly Sword (1993)

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 10/16/2012
Summary: Some of the best early 90's wire-fu choreography

The plot is one of those tales of competition in the martial arts world, bizarre love triangles, decadent eunuchs and playboy princes that is typical of the Hong Kong wu xia film, which is what BUTTERFLY AND SWORD is. It's indecently convoluted, and probably wouldn't make a lot of sense even with a perfect subtitle translation - but does it matter?

The early 90's produced a host of weird, wild and wonderful wu xia films in the wake of SWORDSMAN II, and it was truly a golden age of imagination and cinematic bravado - a period of intense competition amongst Hong Kong's filmmakers to out-do each other in terms of invention. Scripts were decidedly low on the priority list of most productions - it was all about spectacle.

This 1993 film was choreographed by Ching Siu-Tung, the master of choreography when it came to flying swordsmen and people or large chunks of scenery exploding. BUTTERFLY AND SWORD contains some of his most imaginative work... what more do you need to know? The human bow and arrow move is an all-time classic.

Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai give good performances, whilst Elvis Tsui is his usuall OTT and entertaining self. Donnie Yen hardly gets used, but he is typically impressive when he is.

BUTTERFLY AND SWORD is manic, fun and filled with jaw-dropping action scenes. It has a good soundtrack, a plot of some description and the comedy parts aren't too stupid. Not quite a classic, but contains enough great moments that it seems mean to complain about its flaws.

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: Hyomil
Date: 04/07/2011

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 08/16/2005
Summary: Could have been a great movie

“Butterfly and Sword” begins with a very violent image. The scene cuts between a man writing and sealing a long letter and cobras flaring their hoods. Unexpectedly a swordsman flies into the room. The next shot is the bloody face—not the head, just the face—of the writer falling onto one of the snakes. That is hard to top as an introduction to an extravagantly violent wuxia pien. In the next scene in which Tony Leung attacks a caravan by firing himself as an arrow from a giant bowstring string between trees—the escorting soldiers explode as he cuts through them.

If the script matched the choreography it would be a great movie. Unfortunately story abandons the straightforward plotline to examine the secret longings of the main characters which become less and less interesting. Michelle Yeoh walking into the ornate lair of a grotesquely disfigured eunuch while carrying the head of the eunuch’s enemy in a burlap bag is a nice touch. Michelle mooning over Tony Leung and whining about his new girlfriend, Joey Wong, is a waste of talent.

The story is one of family loyalty, revenge and betrayal in a three way battle to control the world of martial arts. The remaining members of the Happy Forest clan, which also includes Yip Cheung played by Donnie Yen, work for Eunuch Li, a dying counselor of the imperial court. After the head of his former enemy thumps to the floor and Sister Ko (Michelle Yeoh) is rewarded with a large chest of gold, he commissions her to kill Sun Yuk-Pak. Ko is hesitant—or perhaps just bargaining—telling him that it might be an impossible task and that she could easily die in the attempt. She is convinced to take it on when Li’s servants part a curtain and reveal a huge pile of gold dust. Eunuch Li is so convincing that he blurs Ko’s otherwise impeccable survival instincts and she takes on a suicide mission to destroy the Elite Villa clan—whose leader, as it turns out, is on a mission to destroy the Happy Forest clan.

While the plot which drives the action scenes is straightforward—we have to kill them before they kill us, with both sides using every bit of guile and trickery possible—it is interlarded with the romance between Brother Sing and the beautiful Butterfly played by Joey Wong. One cannot fault any director for putting Joey Wong on the screen and here she does as well as she can in a role that is badly written and not at all important to the main thrust of the film--they are more annoying than anything else and serve only to stop teh action dead in its tracks. Idyllic interludes in the treetops with Sing and Butterfly alternate with bloody swordplay in which desperate men and women fight to the death. There is no transition between these disparate scenes—they just happen. Adding to the clumsy structure are flashbacks to the childhood of the main characters--they were tough street kids, kids without homes who were already engaged in robbery and assault.

In addition to the choppy and overly complex structure of “Butterfly and Sword”, the characters aren’t developed, so that it is difficult to identify with Ko, Sing and Yip. As Yip Donnie Yen doesn’t have much acting to do. He is the odd man out, in love with Ko since they were kids but knowing that his love will never be returned. Twice we see Yip secretly peering at Ko while she bathes which is a good image for his unrequited longing.

Michelle Yeoh is terrific in every minute of the time she is onscreen. Her action scenes are exceptional including one in a fight in a bamboo grove in which she slides down a split bamboo tree with on foot on each piece of the tree. Her fight against the evil Lord Suen, played with leering gusto by Elvis Tsui ends in a shot that pause button fans will love. After using a long scarf as a weapon to kill a number of Suen’s bodyguards while holding him off, she hits a sensational looking if somewhat exaggerated arabesque with the scarf held taught between her raised hand and her extended foot. Her body is the bow, the scarf is the string and Brother Sing is the arrow. She shoots him and his sword straight through Suen.

There are other scenes which show her talent, dramatic range and screen presence. One is at the very end of the movie when she realizes that everything she has accomplished amounts to very little and that she will never be happy. Very little dialog—her face expresses everything. Another is a long scene which is essentially a speech by Ko in which she tells Sing (and the audience) how difficult her life has been. “I haven’t smiled since I was born,” she says. She didn’t choose a life as a killer, it chose her. She hasn’t been able to love, to act and feel like a woman or to enjoy anything. It is touching and eloquent, even given the subtitles. Ko is the picture of restrained agony, realizing that her life can’t be changed although hating what it has made her.

Despite the jagged structure, misuse of talented actors and inability to pull together the different threads of the movie, I recommend “Butterfly and Sword”. Michelle Yeoh at her dramatic best is reason enough. The fight scenes are very well done and the flying is effective and looks effortless. While there is bloody action, it is not lingered over. The villains are full of energy and perfectly vile—Eunuch Li is astonishingly evil and malevolent. The costuming and interior set design is excellent. Especially good are Sing's home on the river, the big hall in which the fight between Elite Villa and Happy Forest takes place and the shadown lair of Eunuch Li.

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 09/18/2003

A trio of mercenaries are hired by an old kung-fu sifu to steal a document from an evil master that he hopes will save his school from destruction. The group sets out to do the job, but soon their feelings for each other get in the way of work.

Butterfly and Sword is a promising flying swordsman movie ultimately let down by a extremely muddled plot (I watched it twice and still didn't really get what was going on) and a poor script that kills any momentum the film builds by throwing in several boring, talky exposition scenes. It feels like a Wong Jing movie without the gusto or madcap fun usually found in Wong's work. The movie's saving graces are its' high-flying and extremely bloody fight scenes and a nice performance from Michelle Yeoh, who steps out a bit from her "nice but tough girl" image with a role that's a bit more cold-hearted and calculating. For instance, she uses the "flying sleeves" technique to rip some poor guy's head off, something which I have a hard time imaging Wing Chun or Invisible Woman doing. However, these things still can't save this movie from falling into the range of mediocrity and, as such, I can only really recommend it for big Michelle Yeoh fans who want to see a slightly different side of her work.

Reviewed by: balstino
Date: 04/30/2003
Summary: Not great but you have to watch it!

The story in this film dragged terribly in the middle but the action and music is absolutely OTT and amazing! I really like it, even though I'd class it as a bad film overall!

Reviewed by: Inner Strength
Date: 03/02/2003


Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 12/09/2002
Summary: It start out well but..........

Even though you can tell the action from the beginnning was going to be other the top, you had a sense that this movie might actually have a good plot, but that just fizzles out very quickly. Disappointed and the end seems like the movie just stops!!

A lot of stars here. The action was ok but sometimes a bit too fast to even see whats happening and the good guys are just too powerful in my mind. The MAGIC ball is a but over the top too!!

Still i give this:


Reviewed by: pjshimmer
Date: 05/17/2002
Summary: It sucked

A real messed-up movie that has little point. Good sword fights, but ultraviolent and therefore arouses both pity & disgust. But the ultraviolence is so minor compared to the uncomprehensible plot, which is still a nice way to put it. Nothing is ever clear, and although I haven't read the novel by Gu Long, I don't think this adaption did much justice to it. See it only for some decent action.

1993 is my favorite year for HK cinema (and for film in general, since Chinese movies are all I watch). It is the year when more martial arts movies came out than any other year in the decade. Some of the biggest titles in HK history, including Fong Sai Yuk, Tai-Chi Master, Bride With White Hair, City Hunter, East is Red, The Heroic Trio, Once Upon A Time in China 3, Farewell to My Concubine, Iron Monkey, as well as other kung fu honorable mentions like Barefood Kid, OUATIC 4, A Warrior's Tragedy, Blade of Fury, All Men Are Brothers, White Lotus Cult, Sam the Iron Bridge, Justice My Foot, Sword Stained With Royal Blood, Bride With White Hair 2, Fong Sai Yuk 2, Eagle Shooting Heroes, Flying Dagger, Green Snake, Executioner, Holy Weapon, Kickboxer, Legend of the Liquid Sword, Magic Crane, Last Hero in China, & countless others, all came out in the same year. Compared to some of those, Butterfly Sword may not deserve to rank in the top half.


Reviewed by: RLM
Date: 04/23/2001
Summary: Best HK movie of 1993

Heart pounding swordsplay, complicated story line, Joey Wong....damn - everything you love about HK movies is here. A must see and certainly the best from HK in 1993.

Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: illmatic
Date: 10/05/2000

This was an enjoyable swordplay movie with sentimental love themes. Tony and Donnie played their characters well and the action scenes were cool. The plot could have been more developed but overall the film was good. 7.5/10

Reviewed by: hokazak
Date: 12/09/1999

Features the "human bow and arrow," the "magic ball game," a Freddy Krueger claw, and lotsa wire-flying tricks. (Remake of an early 80s Shaw Bros. film called "Killer Clan".)

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

Based on a popular swordfighting novel by Gu Long. This is are-make of another movie called "Killer Clan" made by Shaw Brothers and directed by Chu Yuan back in the early 80s.

[Reviewed by Anonymous]

Reviewed by: spinali
Date: 12/08/1999
Summary: NULL

It's a complicated world, Donnie Yen says while trying to recount the plot to lovely Joey Wong. I sympathize. Li, the ruling eunuch, has directed Sister Ko (Michelle Yeoh) and Brother Sing (Tony Leung) to infiltrate and destroy insurgent groups of martial artists, while in fact Li is already dead, and his impostor's goal is to rule China alone. A rather labored romantic sub-plot weaves through the action, but ultraviolent action sequences more than compensate. Bodies are torn apart by flying fu and lightning swordplay, but the real innovation comes when Sister Ko draws her scarf back as a bow, uses her sword-wielding Brother as a human arrow, and sends him flying through his victims' bodies.


[Reviewed by Steve Spinali]

Reviewer Score: 7