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Merciless Mugging, Obnoxious Style in The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman

The title describes the protagonists of three comic-fantastic stories set in a mud-toned feudal China, told in flashbacks that fit inside one another, matryoshka-doll-style. The most avid fans of merciless mugging will be the sole admirers of the bookending story of Liu Xiaoye's Butcher, with overgrown sideburns and a Baby Huey physique, lovestruck by Kitty Zhang Yuqi's courtesan. (Low humor is all well and good, but your average Punch and Judy show is, compared to this, a model of epicene wit.) Only in the centerpiece sequence—which involves Ando Masanobu negotiating his way into an apprenticeship with Mi Dan's master Chef—does first-time director Wuershan successfully maintain his balance of the grotesque (the Chef's wizened, pocket-size figure; the clown-painted human puddle of the gastronome Royal Eunuch) and the fanciful (presto preparations of poetically named dishes), a tricky feat elsewhere upset by his obnoxious style. "Be pragmatic," the Chef advises his pupil after the latter shows off his theatrical Benihana-style dicing—and succeeds only in spraying his teacher with vegetables. Wuershan pointedly ignores this advice, purée-editing each overshot scene and style-hopping at will as he incorporates doodled cartoon interludes, a horrid musical number, and a brawl framed with the graphics of a one-on-one fighting game.


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