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. (Nick Pinkerton) (AMC Burbank, AMC Century City)
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