CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000): Sword of Destiny review – sequel doesn’t have the chops
Chow Yun-Fat as Li Mu Bai
Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien
Zhang Ziyi as Jen Yu
Cheng Pei Pei as Jade Fox
Wang Hui Ling
Tsai Kuo Jung
Based On The Novel by
Wang Du Lu
Action, Adventure, Drama, Foreign, Romance
With a script seemingly written by algorithm, this dour follow-up to Ang Lee’s dazzling original film comes across like a poor episode of Game of Thrones
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was, at its release in late 2000, one of those rare moments in moviegoing when everyone seemed to agree. From the director of Sense and Sensibility, this international co-production seemed like a film for the so-called prestige audience, in the vein of Ju Dou or Raise the Red Lantern. But at the 15-minute mark it cut loose with dreamlike martial arts action to rouse even the most jaded of kung fu VHS traders.
With its nuanced characters, epic mythology, gorgeous cinematography, breathless action, iconic score (I can go on! It’s terrific!) word of mouth was unstoppable. The film advanced to suburban multiplexes, shattering (and still holding) box office records for a foreign language film in the United States. Indeed, it was a bigger deal in the west than in China, which may explain why its follow-up, , is shot in English. This does not explain, however, why it is so terrible.
It’s been 18 years since Jen Yu leapt into the clouds at Mount Wudang, and various malevolent forces have been waiting to strike. Our returning hero Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) is en route to Beijing after the death of the governor. There sits the sword, Green McGuffin – I mean, Green Destiny – just as before. And like last time a thief in the night comes to yank it away. Only there’s a twist: yes, there’s a young fleet-of-foot woman, Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), springing from within the court, but there’s also a fiery young man, Wei Fang (Harry Shun Jr), ordered to retrieve the sword for the tower-dwelling meanie Hades (Jason Scott Lee).
In a weak version of the rooftop fight (same rooftops, only now with more noticeable digital effects) Shu Lien is able to retain Wei Fang. She decides to cage him in the center of the manor, hoping to draw out those who sent him. She kinda-sorta knows that Snow Vase is also up to no good (she remembers Zhang Yiyi’s character from the first movie) but recognizes her innate talents, and so agrees to become her master.
Martial arts training sequences are pretty hard to screw up. Scenes of Bordizzo (an Australian national of Chinese-Italian descent, making her film debut) trying to pierce a swinging pendant with a cherry blossom stalk using only her sense of sound is, quite frankly, the type of thing I can watch all day. Shu Lien intentionally forces her to train in view of the imprisoned Wei Fang, upon whom she rightly guesses Snow Vase is a tad sweet. We’ll later learn through flashback that there are complex reasons why their two paths are entwined, but honestly, by the second half of the film, the backstories are so byzantine you’ll mostly be watching for the fight scenes.
There’s an additional group of characters who come as a Green Destiny protection service. They are led by Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), who, we’ll learn, was the guy to whom Shu Lien was engaged (and was Chow Yun-Fat’s character’s best pal) but then he was killed, leaving the survivors feeling so guilty they never hooked up. But he’s not dead! Does this lead to a raging romance between the two? No, nothing so human as that. This is a dour, dull movie and when no one is attacking anyone the players up on the screen may as well be looking at their watches saying: “Hey, know when we’re gonna fight? You’re paying us to fight, right?”
Many of those fights are, it should be said, entertaining. Silent Wolf’s gang, who present themselves in a blatant Fellowship of the Ring “and my axe!” retread, includes a burly boozer named Thunder Fist and a sprightly gal named Silver Dart. They get into a fantastic, humour-laced bar brawl that’s a real highlight until you remember that Zhang Ziyi got into a bar brawl in Ang Lee’s picture.
Mirroring the original so closely is a poor decision, not just because it implies this script was written by a mathematical algorithm, but because that original was such a masterpiece. There’s nothing in here that’s within miles of the unbound beauty of Zhang Ziyi and Chow Yun-Fat’s engagement atop the thin bamboo branches.
Not to mention the lack of anything so emotive as Tan Dun’s score or (and let’s remember what brought in the Raise the Red Lantern crowd) the original’s rich character development and strong performances. Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu was, to a degree, a feminist hero rebelling against an arranged marriage. Snow Vase has none of that interior depth. She’s just a badass that, late in the game, is given some revenge motivation.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny isn’t so much a continuation as a Xerox copy with cheap toner. Hades’ HQ is a CG nightmare and the exteriors have their colors blown-out, hoping to dazzle with brightness and not the individuality of their framing. The production design is just acceptable enough that it’ll pass with at-home streaming. (As has been publicized, this was originally intended for an Imax theatrical release; it is currently available only through Netflix.)
The increased lean on fantasy (Hades as a spooky blind sorceress sidekick) is going for a Lord of the Rings vibe, but it’s more like one of those middle-season Game of Thrones episodes where you think, well, this is building to something, so we’ll let it slide. It’s doubtful anyone will be itching for this story to continue.