The synopsis for Butterfly & Sword says that the film is about “a loyalist (Michelle Yeoh) who attempts to keep the King’s empire from being overthrown by a revolutionary group.” It’s good to know, especially since you’d never guess that’s what it is about, even after watching the film itself. Still, circa 1993, a Hong Kong film with no discernable plot was not an unusual thing to say the least, and the idea of a film starring not only the magnificent Michelle Yeoh, but also martial arts god Donnie Yen and the actor’s actor that is known as Tony Leung Chiu Wai, should be enough to be lenient with the film’s narrative shortcomings. Well not really after all : Butterfly & Sword is simply too infuriating in its scattershot storytelling and slapdash action scenes.
There is an evil eunuch, but his motivations are unclear, unless laughing maniacally can be considered a motivation in and of itself. There is actually a fairly touching story of unrequited love to be found in the film, and it takes up much more room than the aforementioned “loyalist vs. revolutionary group” plot. You see, Cheung (Donnie Yen) loves Lady Ko (Michelle Yeoh), who only has eyes for Sing-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who unfortunately is romantically involved with Butterfly (Joey Wang). And while I can’t imagine anyone choosing the mousy Joey Wang over the statuesque Michelle Yeoh, at least it leads to scenes of heartache that offer an eye-soothing diversion from hyperactive, hideously edited action scenes. Action director Ching Siu-Tung is a real master and has crafted some amazing action scenes, but here his particular wire-fu style (based on perpetual movement rather than a series of stances, as well as on the use of fabrics as weapons) is undercut by ridiculous ideas (Yeoh using Leung as a human arrow) and frequently incoherent editing.
Of course there’s Michelle Yeoh’s chemistry with Tony Leung Chiu Wai (as well as with Donnie Yen with whom she would work again the following year in Yuen Woo Ping’s Wing Chun), to keep you awake, as well as a very slight dash of eroticism (this is the director of Sex and Zen, after all), but that doesn’t make the film any less of an annoying waste of talents.
Long Story Short : A painfully aimless, visually messy failure, and a complete waste of the considerable talent of Yeoh, Leung and Yen. *