As the 1990’s drew huge fervor in Western audiences for Hong Kong cinema with Jackie Chan and Jet Li crossovers, director Ang Lee helped pave the way for Asian cinema ina fashion hugely rewarding. The award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000, achieves some of the highest marks in wuxia filmmaking with a story that brilliantly taps into its source material with a sense of substance and quality that bookmarks it as one of the most memorable movies in history. Surely, the film mingles differently among moviegoers as do all, but the majority on this one is quite certain with Lee’s signature vision setting a visible standard in artful storytelling and drama based on Chinese folklore.
On that note and despite its successes as a standalone feature, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remained as one of several stories recorded in the ancient work of author Wang Du Lu whose pentalogy inspires the films we now see today. For this, we are brought into a continuation of that tale under the vision of screenwriter John Fusco whose script now transpires the long-awaited sequel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny with the first film’s action director, Yuen Woo-Ping now at the helm. Having initially learned of the film back in 2013, I suspected (or hoped, rather) that the treatment would be linear in nature with similarities to the vision shown in Lee’s film. Those expectations dissolved when news came about that the entire movie would be filmed in English, immediately signaling cautious optimism ever since. Sure, the reunion of Yuen with fellow prospects of yesteryear, actors Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen instantly draws excitement for fans of Hong Kong cinema like myself, although today’s film climate is one worth bearing in mind when observing news about movies, especially when certain people are brought on board a production to make decisions the rest of us might not agree with.
At the start, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny takes you into an atmosphere instantly different from that of first film. Yeoh reprises her role as Yu Shu-Lien who now lives in seclusion following the events of the first film. Following an unsuccessful attack on her life by a group of masked men, thwarted with the help of an unknown figure following her on her trail, she arrives to the home of her late friend, Sir Te, now in the care of his son where she discovers the sword she long left behind, the Green Destiny, is vulnerable to theft.
From there, we meet actor Jason Scott Lee in the role of Hades Dai, a warlord who seeks to solely conquer the Martial World. Aided by actress Eugenia Yuan’s role of the malficient clairvoiant, Blind Enchantress, and with the help of an underling in the form of Wei Fang, played by Harry Shum Jr., he sets the new goal of stealing the Green Destiny, thought to be long lost, for himself. Fang is ultimately caught by Snow Vase, played by newcomer Natascha Liu Bordizzo, and detained, alerting Shu-Lien of the impending threat that awaits with Dai’s army. She then summons a group of warriors to come to her aid, unknowingly calling on her long lost former love, Silent Wolf, played by Donnie Yen.
Their romance has long faded with the pain that remains present, but they adhere to their comradery for purpose of protecting the sword, regardless. In the meantime, Shu-Lien must also come to terms with quelling the ambitions of Snow Vase, whose own past ultimately reveals itself to be of a shared nature with that of Fang’s. At long last, Dai’s men, led by Blind Enchantress and a warrioress named Mantis, played by Veronica Ngo, charge into the village to make a last ditch effort to snag the Green Destiny from Sir Te’s home before Shu-Lien can spirit away with it. Fang is freed in the process, but with the truth of his past finally revealed, the ultimate battle for vengeance and redemption comes full circle in a final showdown for the Green Destiny and the fate of the Martial World once and for all.
Criticisms of this particular film have been a mixed bag with several points rightfully made in the process. The different setting gives this film’s atmosphere an entirely different feeling compared to its predecessor’s more artful and contemplative tone. We get a film more appropriated for Western audiences which almost ruins the purpose of all the things we appreciated about the first film despite its fantasy nature. The English dialogue has some painful moments despite decent acting from most of the cast; You could call me a hypocrite for my thoughts on the English screenplay seeing as how Fusco’s Marco Polo series is equally set in Asia, but MP wasn’t preset in the same fashion that Yuen’s wuxia sequel was with Lee’s film. As for the action sequences coordinated by Yuen Shun-Yi and Ling Chi Wah, the fights are amply entertaining and fun to look at with some marginally better CG than previously seen in the trailers, but none of them hold a candle to the poetry and electricity seen in the first film heralded by the milestone fight performed by Yeoh and actress Zhang Ziyi.
Yeoh and Yen serve audibly and visbly well in most of their scenes an presents many an enjoyable feat for fans of both stars. Shum Jr. and Bordizzo, who herself happens to be a martial artist, have several moments together on screen that make for an interesting subplot with moments of humor and poignance as well, and the addition of Juju Chan, Chris Pang, Woon Young Park and Darryl Quon add something plentiful to the film’s folkloric tone amid the action and spectacle. Scott Lee’s own performance as the villain is doable as is Ngo’s, and that is the upside of the acting thusfar, whereas the downside ultimately befalls on the film’s half-serviced narrative. What we get in characters, we almost equally lack in development, ultimately leaving us with some performances that are largely phoned-in, characters that die unceremoniously, and pacing that forces itself forward and leaves little room for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny to be the signature successor it could have been.
Yuen Woo-Ping may be an artist and auteur in his own right along with that of fans far and wide, but he’s no Ang Lee, which is part of the problem. That’s not to say that either or are better than the other, but when you take a masterpiece like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and you turn it on its head, you get what Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny is: An otherwise watchable, yet ill-fated sequel that got it right the first and only time. It’s the kind of film you want to love, but ultimately can’t if not for the mere enjoyment of watching Yeoh and Yen back together again with Yuen at the helm, and for this, we can only hope that a film like this never happens again.
Lessons need to be learned here if the fate of the wuxia film genre is to be a prosperous one. Or, we can destine ourselves with repeated mistakes and more reviews like this will be read for years to come, and surely no one wants that.
*For the record, my thoughts on this film are based solely on my viewing of the film in its original English audio for a better analysis of the film and its performances from the cast. Netflix does allow the option of watching it in Mandarin all the same, and how the film fares then is entirely up to you.