Before they would appear together in Marvel’s Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh appear in the 1993 Hong Kong Wuxia film Butterfly Sword. It also features Donnie Yen before he would explode on the international market with Ip Man. This is the second film adaptation of Gu Long’s novel, with the first being the 1976 Shaw Bros. film Killer Clans.
Lady Ko (Michelle Yeoh), Meng Sing Wan (Tony Leung, and Yip Cheung (Donnie Yen) are three childhood friends and assassins of the same clan. They are involved in a big secret plot with the evil Eunuch Li. Additionally, there is a complicated love subplot involving Lady Ko’s unrequited love for Meng Sing Wan, who is in love with Butterfly (Joey Wong), and Yip Cheung’s unrequited love for Lady Ko.
The action is directed by Tony Ching Siu-Tung, whose work in Hero and House of Flying Daggers may be more well known in the west. In the early 90’s, he worked on many Wuxia films such as Swordsman II, The Moon Warriors, and Dragon Inn. His work here is fast and bloody, and the film starts off unforgettably with a character literally losing face, while other characters were bodily torn apart. There are many creative fights that involved a sword and a crossbow (used at the same time), beheading with a piece of cloth, and literally diving right through a body. There would be many knockoff fight scenes in later Wuxia movies and TV series that reference this movie (e.g., the 1994 Singaporean Wuxia TV Series Web of Deceit features the main character diving right through someone’s body).
Gu Long’s works are known to be shorter than his contemporaries (such as Jin Yong), which made these ideal for adapting to movie form (hence why Shaw Bros. adapted so many of his works). Ironically, his stories can be very complicated if not adapted properly. While Killer Clans adaptation focuses mainly on the clans, Butterfly Sword complicates it by adding a complex romantic subplot. There are many instances of events happening rapidly without proper explanation; without the fine fight choreography and performances, this film may have well been forgotten.
Butterfly Sword is an example of a Wuxia film that is carried solely by the cast and action. There were many Wuxia films (or films in general) released in 1993 by Hong Kong, with some being almost obscure now. This one is only recommended to fans of the cast, or those who just want to see some really impressive Wuxia fights.
Special Note: The original theatrical ending (without spoiling the film) was more conclusive to the character of Lady Ko and Yip Cheung; however, it supposedly caused an uproar among fans. This ending is available on Taiwanese releases and as a special feature on the out-of-print US Taiseng DVD. The more common releases by Well Go USA and other distributors have an abrupt ending.