In 2000 audiences and critics across the world were blown away by CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. The product of international co-operation between studios and directed by Ang Lee, an auteur celebrated both in his native Taiwan and China and in the West, Crouching Tiger became the martial arts film loved by people who didn’t like martial arts films. As well as distinctive fight scenes it had painterly landscapes and poetic melodrama in abundance in addition to cementing Lee’s position as one of the most in-demand directors in the world. A decade and a half later Netflix and the China Film Group have produced a sequel, SWORD OF DESTINY directed by Yuen Woo-Ping which doesn’t come close to escaping its predecessors imposing shadow.
Sixteen years after the death of her master, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) returns from self-imposed exile to Peking to once again protect the legendary sword the Green Destiny. Young prodigy Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), old flame Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) and Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), a powerful warlord seeking to control all of Martial China with the Green Destiny, await her…
Great effort has been taken to replicate the look of Ang Lee’s Oscar-winner. The vibrant colours, sumptuous costumes and floaty action with bursts of speed and dexterity are all present and correct. Those worried about Netflix original productions looking cheaper than big screen releases need not worry such is the level of craftsmanship on display. A fight on a rapidly disintegrating frozen lake has to be up there with the top action scenes of the year – it’s thrilling and beautiful to behold. The only time the cracks start to show is with iffy CG set and background extensions, but these thankfully only come with establishing shots when the story shifts location.
There’s a lot more comedy this time round too – Silent Wolf’s recruitment of an honourable band of warriors to defend Shu Lien’s compound riffs on SEVEN SAMURAI and each fighter’s demonstration of their preferred methods of combat in a wood-splintering tavern brawl is creative and pretty amusing (though basically a re-tread of a similar scene in the first film). I hate it when movies are dismissed by lazy critics as looking like video games, but parts of this film do feel like a Role Playing Game. RPGs usually require you to bring together party members with different skills and contrasting personalities and the film’s campfire gossiping scene certainly has the air of the conversations you initiate with characters between missions in Bioware games like DRAGON AGE or MASS EFFECT.
The key problem is they’ve named this Crouching Tiger sequel after the MacGuffin of the first film. Last time it was a tale of passion and self-discovery that just happened to involve the battle for possession of a special sword. This time it’s the same stakes, only the person trying to take the sword is a much less interesting. Gone is the conflicted and layered Jen and in comes Hades Dai who is such a two-dimensional antagonist he makes the baddies who faced Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the 80s look nuanced. The film is lucky to still have Yeoh’s sturdy performance at its heart, and Yen playing his character like a wushu Man with No Name works but comic relief aside the rest of the newcomers have very little to add.
It’s all perfectly watchable and you’ll rarely be bored but director Yuen (a choreographer who has worked with Jackie Chan, Jet Lee and Quentin Tarantino) seems much less interested in giving his film any heart than he is in constructing eye-popping action. It’s in English presumably because Netflix hasn’t taken off in China yet, which is a little weird but you soon get used to it. The concept of big films being financed and premiering on streaming services is still a new concept but I hope it catches on for the sake of accessibility and the potential for more interesting projects than Sword of Destiny finding an outlet. SSP