Starring Lisa Chiao Chiao, Yueh Hua, Tien Feng, Yeung Chi Hing, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ku Feng, Lo Wei, Ma Ying, Chen Hung Lieh, Cheung Yuk-Kam, Han Ying Chieh, Fang Mian, Lee Wan Chung
Directed by Lo Wei
Expectations: Low, but hopeful, as Lo Wei is a notable director in later martial arts history.
The Black Butterfly is a movie with more potential than actual, quality goods. It starts off as a slight retelling of the classic Robin Hood tale, with the Black Butterfly stealing taels of gold and silver from the rich and then redistributing the wealth to the less fortunate. Some research uncovered that this is also a period remake of the 1965 Chor Yuen film, The Black Rose, but I haven’t seen that so I can’t specifically comment on the differences. Anyway, the entire first hour is concerned with this Hood storyline and frankly it’s pretty ho-hum and boring. Not a whole lot happens, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting elements at work. The film is slick and professional in its direction, with Lo Wei composing beautifully constructed shots and moving the camera around with grace and purpose. Some of these lesser Shaw Brothers movies feel as low-budget & hasty as they probably all were, but The Black Butterfly definitely belongs to the group that transcends that quality and looks like a million bucks. It’s amazing what quality camerawork will do for a film.
At around the hour mark, the film picks up considerably. We are introduced to two wandering bandits from the Five Devil Rock Castle who start a fight at the Inn run by Gold Sword Kwan (played wonderfully by Tien Feng). Kwan is something of a local martial arts legend, so outside the Inn his students train with one another. The bandits progressively challenge the students and then Kwan himself in one of the best fights of the early Shaw Brothers films. The sequence is shot and edited with tension and action abounds from every moment. This isn’t up to later standards by any means, but for an early fight, it’s quite exciting and a great signal of things to come. After this fight the story shifts from a Robin Hood tale to a more standard good guys vs. bandits martial arts story and is honestly much more enjoyable for it. There’s a lot of good backstory as well, with Gold Sword Kwan and the Drunken Beggar who spends a lot of his day soaking up wine and the sun in Kwan’s Inn.
The end battle takes up the final twenty minutes of the runtime and is mostly successful. It falls into the tired tropes that all “small group vs. incredibly large group” fights fall into, namely sacrificing great choreography and individual displays of prowess for large-scale epic battles with hundreds of combatants. But The Black Butterfly does something interesting here that I’ve never seen before. Each time our heroes encounter a group of enemies as they make their way through the Five Devil Rock Castle, one or two of their group shouts out, “Let me go first!” They proceed to fight to the best of their abilities until the Black Butterfly shouts, “Get away!” They run to the back and the Black Butterfly runs in, decimating the enemy ranks with overhand dagger thrusts and superior martial skill. It’s a strange way to handle the fight, but it’s interesting and fun to watch, ending the film on a true high note.
The Black Butterfly isn’t an outstanding film, but it is one with all kinds of potential. The acting is great from the entire cast, with special mention going out to Tien Feng and director Lo Wei as the bandit chief. The more extravagant kung-fu moments are really fun as well, whether it’s Tien Feng jumping over some rolling logs or the Black Butterfly briskly hopping over the surface of a lake without so much as a single ripple disturbing the surface of the water. If you’re willing to give it some leeway, The Black Butterfly will entertain and satisfy those looking for a rare and different martial arts experience. It also shows how experienced and confident of a director Lo Wei was at the time, so it’s no surprise that he went on to later successes outside the Shaw Brother’s studio, namely helping to launch the careers of both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.