Monday, September 20, 2010

TIFF 2010 reviews: The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman

I’ve been thinking a lot about cinematic excess lately and how it’s almost become a thematically-varied genre unto itself, and specifically how that pertains to the Midnight Madness program. I suppose it’s one of the big draws for that section of the festival, the chance to watch something onscreen go Over The Top with an audience primed to totally lose their shit at the very prospect. There are degrees of course. On one level, you have the films that achieve their craziness (subjectively speaking) honestly. Think Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, or John Woo’s 1986-1991 output.. Jackson especially seems to revel in tossing viscera at the screen for no higher-minded reason that a desire to please both himself and a certain sympathetic type of audience member bound to scream in joy at the sensation. On a second level, you have the kind of excess that exists only for its own justification; a self-conscious craziness that exists because it’s expected, or because the writer and/or director have a desire for the sensation without earning the right to it with the surrounding story. This one’s often given away in the screenplay, with plenty of caps and exclamation points in the action descriptions.

And recently there’s emerged this bizarre third level, a cousin once removed that seems to actually be about the process of creating excess. Exhibit A is Robert Rodriguez, who teetered back and forth across the line between 2 and 3 with Rose McGowan’s machine gun leg in Planet Terror and then firmly planted his flag with Machete, something which barely qualifies as a movie but is rather a collection of “bet you can’t top this” moments in a simulacrum of a genre that, strictly speaking, has never existed in the form that Rodriguez thinks it did.

Anyway, all this comes up now partly because I’m delaying trying to write about my third MM movie of this year’s festival, The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman, about which I have virtually nothing to say except, huh? There’s a lot of talk in genre circles about that supposedly fun style called the mash-up. To bandy the word about is to offer a supposed explanation as to why some directors never settle on a tone within a movie, or it’s used as a cultural explanation for why Bollywood films will stick a musical number in the middle of a car chase in the middle of a family slapstick comedy in the middle of a horror movie. What it too often really means, though, is a headache-inducing collision of discordant elements with no rhyme or reason. Like, for example, in The Butcher, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover which throws loads of elements of Hong Kong and mainland China cinema into a messy unstirred stew. From wu xia pan to mo lei tau; from the cooking comedy to the Shaw Brothers chop socky; from the shameless, bellowing, mugging of repulsive bulbous characters with unfortunate facial hair to the ingénues in silk dresses coyly hiding behind fans; from deliberately-artificial soundstage work to Scott Pilgrim-style fight sequences...this flick has them all, just not in any understandable form. I have no idea how it played at midnight; I saw it at 3 in the afternoon and nodded off a couple of times, or I think I did.

Even more baffling, is that The Butcher and Carol and Ted and Alice is apparently going to get a mainstream release, four or five years after Kung Fu Hustle flukily put Steven Chow at number one in North America for a week. Doug Limon is credited as a producer, and not just on the English poster à la “Quentin Tarantino presents Hero” but within the opening Chinese credits. Not sure how the Bourne Identity director got mixed up in this mess, but he may want to rethink. (* 1/2)

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