Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016)
Director: Yuen Woo-Ping
Screenplay: John Fusco (based on the novel “Iron Knight, Silver Vase” by Wang Dulu)
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“, Ang Lee‘s 2000 love letter for the Wuxia genre, was like a lightning in a bottle. It won both audiences and critics alike, making a mint on the box office and collecting several awards; including the Oscar for “Best foreign language film” – pretty much cementing Ang Lee’s path to the big leagues. It’s also notable for giving Chow Yun-Fat a role in a Hollywood studio-funded(partially at least) movie that was actually worth a damn. That hadn’t really happened before – NOR has it happened since (“Pirates of the Caribbean 3“, gimme a break…!).
Naturally there was chatter about a sequel almost rightaway, as the film was based only on one book in the “Crane-Iron“-series of five novels. Not that there was ever any chance of Lee actually being involved on a sequel though – as everyone can witness from his filmography, Lee has never made the same film twice; or even tackled the same GENRE twice. For a while there was talks about a prequel – focusing on the younger versions of the characters played by Michelle Yeoh and Yun-Fat that would feature younger lead actors, but after a while all that talk died down.
So it was very much a surprise when it was announced in 2013 that The Weinstein Company would actually produce a sequel, based on the fifth and final novel in the series, titled “Iron Knight, Silver Vase” (which was the actual title of the sequel for a long time, until it was changed to what it is now). An even bigger surprise: it would be co-financed by Netflix, as a part of their “Netflix Originals” which would open simultaneously in their streaming service AND in cinemas. The sequel would be directed by Yen Woo-Ping, the martial arts choreographer of the first film and Michelle Yeoh would be reprising her role as Yu Shu Lien.
The film begins 18 years after the events of the previous movie. Since the love of her life Li Mu Bai’s death, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) has chosen to live in solitude, until she has to travel to a funeral of an old friend, Sir Te. On the way, her carriage is attacked by warriors of the West Lotus clan – a clan led by warlord Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) who’s intent is to take over the entire Martial Arts world by eliminating all the old warriors still following the teachings of the Iron Way. With the help of a masked stranger, Lien defeats all but one of the attackers, who flees. While returning to Dai’s temple the young man, named Wei Fang (Harry Shum jr.) encounters a mysterious blind woman who asks him to escort her to see Dai. Apparently she has a gift of foreseeing things, and she tells Dai that the only way he can rule is by getting the fabled sword, the Green Destiny, into his possession. The sword is being kept at Sir Te’s home where Shu Lien arrives. The night after the funeral, Wei Fang sneaks into the house having vouched to Dai that he can steal the sword, only to encounter another person – a young woman named Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) – who ALSO is trying to steal it. As their fight alerts everyone, Wei Fang is apprehended by Shu Lien and Snow Vase is being mistakenly heralded as a hero for trying to stop the thief.
After learning of Dai’s pursuit of the sword, Te’s son and Shu Lien call out to possible surviving followers of the Iron Way to help in protecting the sword. The masked stranger seen in the beginning of the movie, called Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) responds and gathers with him a rag-tag group of four: Flying Blade (Chris Pang), Silver Dart Chi (Juju Chan), Thunder Fist Chan (Woon Young Park) and Turtle Ma (Darryl Quon). Meanwhile Shu Lien, impressed by her already apparent Martial Arts skills(and curious of her strange interest in Wei Fang), accepts Snow Vase as her student – both to teach her and to keep a watch over her. As Silent Wolf and his group arrive, Shu Lien is shocked to learn that Silent Wolf is in fact Meng Sizhao – a man believed to be dead – in a battle with Dai – who she was to marry many, many years ago(I know it’s a bit soap opera-ish, but melodrama is a big part of the Wuxia genre) and who’s memory Li Mu Bai honored by never acting on his feelings towards Shu Lien. While the two try to patch their strained relationship, it is revealed that there is a very deep historical connection between Wei Fang and Silver Vase – one that he had no idea about and which also very much ties their fates with Dai. After fending off attacks from Dai’s warriors and losing a few from their ranks, Shu Lien decides to take the sword and run – but it seems that destiny has other plans…and the final battle will be fought in Dai’s doorstep.
Okay, so let’s address the giant elephant in the room first; the one that had many people (including yours truly) balking after seeing the first teasers of this movie – the switch to using English language instead of Chinese. The thing I was worried about was that some of the actors would sound like reading the lines phonetically, or something. That’s not the case: everyone in the cast is very much fluent with English. No – the problem surprisingly is that when translated into English, the dialogue becomes weirdly punctuated and…hasty. If you were like me and watched some undubbed VHS-tapes of Hong Kong-films in the 90’s and remember those English subtitles, you’ll get the idea. I read that this film was dubbed in Chinese for the Asian market, which has it’s fair share of irony.
It all feels so rushed when compared to the first movie – there was something poetic about the dialogue in original Chinese that just added to the atmosphere of that film. Here it feels that everybody is just rushing through all these dialogue scenes with as little words and emotion as possible. I guess this also the reason for the films fairly short running time; just 90 minutes, plus 11 minutes of end credits. I know that the primary motivation in the language switch was to reach as many people as possible – Netflix is a business entity after all – but yes: it ends up hurting the drama.
There was never any question that the film was gonna be anything like the lyrical tone poem that the original was, as Yen Woo-Ping was given the director’s seat; he’s an action director. So it’s no surprise that after the dramatic scenes are shortened by the much more fast-paced English language, this film ends up having a LOT more action. And that was probably the main idea by Netflix to try and attract more audience. The action scenes are pretty damn good, though. And as the whole cast has a solid martial arts-background, there is certainly VERY little use of stunt doubles. Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh have been doing stuff like this for their whole careers and there is something very joyous about seeing action heroes that are past their fifties (Yen is 52, Yeoh 53) who can still effortlessly pull this type of stuff off (a lesson to be learned for the Expendables out there!). And Woo-Ping manages to create some fresh action set-pieces as well: there is a three-way fight scene on a frozen lake that is absolutely brilliant.
Some of the scenery in the movie felt vaguely familiar, and that was due to the fact that the whole film was actually shot in New Zealand – not China (which I wasn’t even aware of until seeing the end credits!). And as result, some of the crew are “Lord of the Rings“-veterans: production designer Grant Major and costume designer Ngila Dixon. With some CGI additions you could never tell that this was NOT filmed in China, and Newton Thomas Sigel (Bryan Singer’s regular DP) definitely photographs the hell out of it. I think the only visual thing that sort of catches the eye is the clearly-CGI temple of Hades Dai, which could’ve used a few more rendering passes. But that is minor nitpicking; I guess they didn’t have THAT big of a budget.
The overall impression I got from this film was that it is a solid action film, Michelle Yeoh is still as magnetic in her role as before – be it in Chinese of English. But something was sort of lost in translation in this one. For example: a subplot of the blind wizard woman character feels both out of place and is never really explained (she is looking for revenge, but for what? This is not told) and as she suddenly begins to use her magical powers in the end it really really sticks out from the rest of the story. I know: “well it’s really a movie where people are levitating all over the place, isn’t it?” – but that’s a Wuxia standard. When someone starts to use magic, it just suddenly jumps into complete fantasy-land. And I don’t know if it’s because of the source material but there is a certain repetitive nature of plot elements from the previous film: the “Green Destiny”-sword is once again the McGuffin which various parties are trying to obtain, there is once again a feisty young woman and a young man who are bound by destiny and their story is sort of mirrored with Shu Lien and her relationship with Silent Wolf. Still – I’ll take that over a daytime soap opera any day of the week.
So don’t go into this expecting it to be the same as the first film – this is a shorter, more action-y version of that. But still watchable.