The best martial arts movies understand that fighting is not an act of pure anger. The fighters transcend space and time in an act of celebration of their masterful powers. It all plays out with grace and lightness, like a delicate dance number. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon demonstrated a philosophical understanding of the craft involved in martial arts. It’s not about winning the fight like in Western films, it’s about looking the most skilled. Unfortunately, director Yuen Woo-ping, who choreographed the first film, seemed to have forgotten everything that made Ang Lee’s film exhilarating and inspiring.
The film picks off twenty years after the first and sees the return of Yu Shu Lien, played once again by Michelle Yeoh. A warlord named Hades Dai is seeking the legendary sword, the Green Destiny, which is in Shu Lien’s possession. She is joined by her former lover Silent Wolf, portrayed by wuxia veteran Donnie Yen, and his squad of fighters to protect the Green Destiny from being taken away. In the midst of all this, a thief named Wei-Fang (Harry Shum, Jr.) attempts to steal the sword before being stopped by a girl named Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who is training under Shu Lien.
Hype for the film quickly fizzled out once people realized that the whole damn thing is in English. It only begs the question, what the hell were they smoking? Making a wuxia film in English is like making a western in Chinese. It’s not just that it sounds wrong, it’s completely disobeying the genre’s identity. You could argue that making wuxia films just in Chinese is too limiting of the genre, but that’s like saying that comedies need to be more serious or that fantasies should be less ridiculous. I saw the film in poorly dubbed Chinese and still the film lacked the sense of spirituality and history that permeated the first film. We are thrown into an action scene before we gather a sense of time and place. The production and costume design is also cheap, and the film feels more New Zealand than it does China.
As I mentioned above, the gracious and philosophical nature of Chinese martial arts plays a huge role in the quality of a wuxia fight scene. Nothing in Sword of Destiny represents that at all. The opening action scene is sloppy and edited to the point of being nauseating. The following action scenes are no different and only get more and more superficial. The film’s “climactic” battle shows so little energy and meaning that even the repetitive Fast and Furious movies are starting to look like fucking Mad Max: Fury Road in comparison.
The film’s story barely even chains together these dull action sequences and displays absolutely no sense of story or character development. Events play out without narrative flow and consistently hit the same points of nonexistent dramatic and emotional tension. Need to set up the story? Just add some boring narration. Need to explain a character’s backstory? Just use some redundant flashbacks. Need a shitty excuse for a fight scene? Just add irritating new characters that will contribute nothing to the story. I sound like I’m beating on the same dead horse but hey, isn’t the film as well?
The film’s acting is serviceable. No one stands out and no one feels like they want to. Michelle Yeoh reprises her iconic role, having accumulated 16 years of more wisdom and maturity since her last appearance. However, this wisdom and maturity is nowhere to be found in her character. She’s just old and noticeably tired. The newcomers aren’t all that exciting either. Donnie Yen doesn’t get much to do and is just the stereotypical wuxia hero. Harry Shum, Jr. and Natasha Liu Bordizzo are the weakest link and yet so much screen time is dedicated to their characters. The film doesn’t allow room for these relationships and characters to breathe and bloom. All of them stay the same by the end of the film, leaving us indifferent to their journey. Whenever the film does try to build character, it is shoehorned in with clumsy exposition scenes. Take for example when the film tries to connect Wei-Fang’s past to Snow Vase’s. It uses so many flashbacks and awkward glances to communicate that I’ve already checked out before it gets anywhere (not that it actually does).
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny came too late to catch the first film’s hype and is too lacking in substance to stand on its own. Every single aspect of this film shows no potential and just crumbles to ground. It is a lousy Westernization of what we know as wuxia films, attempting to ride on the coattails of something great. Zhang Ziyi was originally in talks to reprise her role but would only sign on if Ang Lee was directing. She made a wise choice. I give Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny an F.
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