Way back in the early 1990s, Hong Kong films were finally getting their due. Director John Woo was getting work in America following incredible action films such as The Killer and Hard-Boiled, Jackie Chan was being rediscovered and introduced to new audiences with Rumble in the Bronx, and books such as Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head and Hong Kong Action Cinema offered movie fans insightful guides to the wild stuff they missed in the way of action entries imported from Asia.
A handful of entrepreneurs around the country began booking Hong Kong films in multiplexes, hoping to draw on both the Asian audiences already familiar with the type of over-the-top shenanigans the movies offered, and American action fans tired of the same old, same old.
The Franklin Mills Theater, located then around the perimeter of the labyrinth of color-coded corridors known as Northeast Philadelphia’s Franklin Mills Mall (it has since moved to inside the mall), was one of the places that hosted midnight screenings of Hong Kong films.
Regulars there got to know the routine. A wait in an overcrowded lobby until the theater playing the Hollywood movies let out. A capacity crowd shuffling into a theater as a slide show promoting Asian-owned businesses in the area was projected on the screen. And then…the feature attraction.
One of the more memorable films of the three-or-four-year period from when Franklin Mills was in their Hong Kong phase—it ended, ironically, after a John Woo-styled shootout in the lobby that, thankfully, this writer was not there for– was called Comet, Butterfly and Sword.
It’s tough to decipher the plot—or plots—of this 1993 outing, but it was the story—or-stories—that got the attention of bleary eyed moviegoers.
Spectacular aerial battles and flying effects were attention grabbers from the get-go. Later research would reveal that this film was part of the Hong Kong school of wuxia films, a derivation of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of sword-wielding, chivalrous heroes. And while the incredible death-defying acts of high-flying balletics and bloodletting involving characters in feudal Chinese garb was new to me—and many others in the audience—it was something pretty common in Hong Kong films of the past.
And in the future. Comet, Butterfly and Sword—also known as Butterfly and Sword and released recently on DVD and Blu-ray as Butterfly Swords from Well-Go USA—paved the way for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Dragons, The Matrix Trilogy, Kill Bill and the soon-to-be released Quentin Tarantino production The Man with the Iron Fists with Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu.
An attempt to decipher Butterfly Swords leads one to assume that the film tells the story about the “Happy Forest,” a gang of martial arts assassins during the Ming Dynasty that consists of Michelle Yeoh (the “Bond Girl” from Tomorrow Never Dies), Tony Leung (Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love) and Donnie Yen (Hero). The “Happy Forest” group’s new assignment is to kill the leader of the “Elite Villa” and steal a sacred scroll. Complicating matters—and we mean “really complicating matters”—is the fact that Yeoh has a thing for Tony Leung, while he only cares for his wife-to-be who is unaware of his job as a killer.
There is much, much more, but we will spare you the details about the other romantic complications, double crosses and treachery.
But we can’t skip out enthusiasm for Butterfly Sword’s high wire act of screen action. Opponents of the “Happy Forest” crew are turned into mulch, bouncing off walls, trees and whatever else is around to hurt them. Meanwhile, Yeoh is pure athletic wonder, hurling Leung through enemies with her belt as he brandishes his sword. The “Happy Forest”-ers are adept at running-in-place while gravity carries them over trees, landing them in the heat of battle with their enemies.
Although the film is as good as it is awe-inspiring, Butterfly Swords has a fairly high gore quotient, with characters getting sliced and diced, faces ripped off and other nasty bits of business.
Directed by Michael Mak, who also helmed the controversial Amy Yip saga Sex and Zen with action choreographed by
Siu Tung-Ching (Shaolin Soccer), Butterfly Swords may perplex those without a roadmap to its plot and characters—and, believe us, we really simplified it!—but for those who want unpredictable action sequences that put the “pow” in “ker-pow,” this feudal fight club is anything but futile.