Here’s a little secret – Sword of Destiny, the sequel to the award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is nothing like the original, and that is one of the best things that can happen to Asian cinema.
Personally, Ang Lee’s masterpiece was a bit of a miss for me. While it has been branded a wuxia film, it is to wuxia what Ghost World is to comic book movies, what 2001: A Space Odyssey is to sci-fi films, what Titanic is to romance flicks, what Aliens is to horror movies and what Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is to action movies.
All these films have their essence in the genre that they are trying to evoke, but are clearly moving beyond the obvious. And though all these movies are renowned in their own right, they are not necessarily the best representations of what’s out there.
Imagine if all sci-fi films followed Kubrick, or if Aliens established the template of horror films. I felt the same way about the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ang Lee distilled some of the essence in wuxia films but it was the human drama that he was focused on. And I’m not sure if I can sit through another sword fight like that.
So when it came time for a sequel, they went to the best person for the role – action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping. Western audiences know him as the guy who choreographed The Matrix, but Asian audiences have long been familiar with the most famous of the Yuen brothers.
His Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master turned a then unknown Jackie Chan into a major star, while his Iron Monkey remains one of my favourite movies in Asian action cinema.
And Sword of Destiny maintains what Yuen does best – a strong wuxia film based on elements many Asians have grown up with, even if the wuxia genre has yet to evolve with modern audiences.
What do I mean? The name 武当山 has a resonance with those versed in the rich history of wuxia. And when audiences hear it spoken as Wudang Mountain, much is lost in the translation. Remember in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 which talks about the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique? It sounds funny when translated in English, but the essence of a touch of death has been an intrinsic part of Chinese martial arts mythology. A variant in the one where you get hit with the technique, and will die upon taking the 10th step. Or something to that effect.
The martial arts scenes in Sword of Destiny are faultless. Yuen has been doing this for almost 50 years, and he is still able to impress audiences with new styles and techniques. Western audiences mock it as wire-fu but Asian audiences know it as a form of 轻功, so if you have hired a master to tell a story, allow him to do so.
This film loosely follows the events of the original, and Michelle Yeoh reprises her role as Yu Shu Lien, who returns to 江湖 after the death of an old friend. Naturally, the 武林 community is aware of her return, and one person in particular, Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) eyes the Green Destiny sword, not realising that she is not in possession of it.
One thing leads to another and Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), her ex beau shows up to help her, as several martial arts experts appear, some who have a special interest in the sword. One of them happens to be Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who chances upon one of Dai’s men, Wei Fang (Harry Shum Jr.) and realises that he is somehow linked to her past.
Truth be told, the story isn’t that complex. There’s a sword that everyone wants, and everyone thinks she has it. As it turns out, it does end up in her possession after several die because of it. Her ex-boyfriend shows up with a couple of heroes who want to protect it, because this really bad guy wants it. Said lackey of bad guy is trying to get it, but he meets this girl and pretty soon, every decides that this bad guy, who has a formidable female lackey of his own, must die.
Oh hey, did I mention that the movie is based on a series of popular Chinese wuxia books, and is directed by a guy who once made a movie about a kung-fu expert that drinks alcohol to become better at fighting.
Because this was financed by Netflix, the movie was filmed in English. And unlike Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was a Chinese movie made by a Taiwanese, starring a Malaysian and a Hong Konger, English actually works because both Yeoh and Yen, the leads of this movie, can speak proper English. Yes, who actually remembers the bizzare Chinese spoken by the leads in the original film?
Where it doesn’t work is when wuxia names and terms start popping up. Yuen does his best and the dialogue works a lot better than watching a English dubbed version of a Jackie Chan movie.
Watch out for the intense fight over a frozen lake, as well as the enchanted chases and fights across the mythical forests of China, which is actually on location filming in New Zealand, and hence the almost Middle-Earth like imagery in the setting.
The only thing that does not really work in the film is the mismatched casting of Yeoh and Yen as lovers, since those two have zero chemistry. And while Yen rules in every fight scene in the film, there’s the sense that he’s not putting in his best and is merely going through the motions. We’ve definitely seen Yen evoke more feelings in his portrayals.
But even then, he is way more convincing as a martial arts expert than Chow Yun Fatt ever was in the original.