Oh God, I wanted this to be good, you have no idea…
Where do I start with this? A sequel to one of the most well received Mandarin language Wuxia films ever, Sword of Destiny has one nearly impossible task to live up to its predecessor. The original set new standards in filmmaking for Chinese films, ushered in a new way of presenting Wuxia films to international audiences and cemented the reputations of director Ang Lee and stars Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi. A sequel to it has been in the offing for over a decade and a half. False starts, rumours and more littered the way to this film being made. But in 2014, it was reported that Netflix was in the running to pay for and distribute the film on their platform while producing studio The Weinstein Company arranged to have the film play in IMAX theaters in the US at the same time. Was it worth the wait for a sequel to one of the most timeless Chinese action dramas ever made?
In a word: no.
If the film had no connection to the original film, it would be judged on its own merits. As Yu Shu Lien, Michelle Yeoh plays the weary warrior perfectly. All Lien wants to do is retire and spend her days meditating and getting over the loss of her beloved Li Mu Bai (originally played by Chow Yun-fat, now portrayed by a silhouette) while giving up her days as an adventurer. Unfortunately, the death of the protector of the Green Destiny sword (Li Mu Bai’s sword) means she must return and try and put it out of the reach of those who would use it to destroy China. Enter Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) who after receiving the information from a blind sorcerer (Eugenia Yuan), sends his young warrior Wei-Fang (Harry Shum. Jr) to retrieve it. There, he meets the daughter of an Imperial court official called Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) who stops him from taking the sword while wanting it for her own reasons. Into this comes the lone hero Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) who answers Lien’s call for protectors of the sword along with the gang he finds along the way. So now, the two groups are going to conflict with each other for possession of the sword.
In the film, Michelle Yeoh pretty much single-handedly proves why she’s the queen of Hong Kong action and always will be. She glides through the role with an effortlessness that makes the younger actors look more novice than they should. Every word, every look is nuanced and even her cadence is reserved as she considers everything said to her and everything she says. All the while, director Yuen Woo-Ping uses her to great effect and pairs her with her old Wing Chun co-star Donnie Yen (which was also directed by Yuen Woo-Ping!) and while their roles require that they keep a respectable distance from each other (more on that later), the two actors are clearly having fun and Yen himself looks like he’s slipped into a comfortable jacket with his wide brim hat, black robes, swords, footwork and wire-fu. On the villainous side, while there are three major bad guy roles (main, sorceress, right-hand woman) all of the cheese in the evildoers side is chewed up by Jason Scott Lee who is clearly having the time of his life with Hades Dai. The man just smiles from behind his leather war jacket and robe and sits waiting for someone, anyone dumb enough to attack him. While some of the lines Lee is given to say must feel like trying to swallow a screwdriver, he attacks his role with gusto and that’s all you want from a cardboard villain (even one as talented as Lee). Yuen Woo-Ping will always have my respect for Iron Monkey which is still one of my favourite guilty Wuxia pleasures (also starring Donnie Yen!) and all of his films bare a similar set of hallmarks: fast action scenes, characters who are larger than life, sparse dialogue with only essential material being used, a wicked sense of humour and a certain affinity for the lone, wandering warrior archetype. Along with his Wuxia films of earlier days, CTHD: Sword of Destiny is a decent addition to the canon of all the actors and the director involved and they can at least sit back, proud that they were in an entertaining jaunt.
But this film cannot just be an entertaining jaunt: it’s the sequel to one of the most important pieces of action cinema in recent decades. The poise of the original, its tone, the themes that underlie it, the cast and their terrific performances and the timeless nature of the film and where it sits both in terms of the era it portrays and the time the film was produced all come together to make the first film one of the films that critics who want their quote to be on the film’s Oscar trailer like to declare as “breathtaking”. The first film by Ang Lee was credited as restarting international interest in the Wuxia and historical drama genres within Chinese cinema. Which is ironic since Ang Lee and producer James Shamus had no experience working on Wuxia films and, therefore, had no expectations to fulfill as they saw it. This allowed the first film to be fresh and still fuse the talent who made these type of films on a yearly basis in Hong Kong and China with a Hollywood level of talent and creativity on their parts.
This leads to what I consider being the inherent flaw in the second film: it’s produced too much to appeal to Western audiences. Have you ever seen a good Chinese language film that you thought had possibilities and then saw its English dubbed version? Noticed how bad it was, how all the intentions of the characters were altered, however unintended? Did you see it during the mid to late 1990’s? Congratulations, you’ve watched a Weinstein Brothers localisation of a HK or Chinese film! The Weinstein’s were (in)famous for hacking up foreign language films and changing plots, characters and whole endings. The most egregious were the Jet Li and Jackie Chan films they released. I would rather watch reruns of Big Brother UK than watch their “improvements” on Hong Kong and Chinese filmmakers. Their brand of production decisions are all over the film with none of the cultural sensitivities of the original present. The project feels like an encore of the first film, a best hits compilation album of the previous proceedings. Sword of Destiny works best when it’s not trying to hark back to its older sibling. Every time they do, the newer film comes off more and more amateurish. A number of times we sat through a flashback of Li Mu Bai and all we saw was a silhouette, not an actor. Of course, they probably couldn’t afford Chow Yun-fat but find someone who looked him, please! As I’ve said before, the way in which the film constantly references the first film (the sword, Li Mu, Lien’s mourning, who is Silent Wolf really), it makes you realise the people making it seem to have heard the plot to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and wrote a script based on what they heard. The only cast member to return, Yeoh, looks tired every time she has to bring up her dead love to a new character we’ve only just met. I imagine the meeting at the Weinstein Company went as follows:”OK! We’re gotten the rights to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon! But we’ve only got a quarter of the budget the original had! New Zealand don’t have the Lord of the Rings movies anymore so they said we can film there and get some tax money back! So get some CG buildings and mountains in there, hire a Chinese sounding director, get some music that sounds like Yo-Yo Ma, find Michelle Yeoh and see if she’s still alive and get filming!”
I wish I was kidding but the CG in this movie looks terrible. If I squint the CG bodies of Michelle Yeoh and co. flying around on rooftops vaguely move like human beings and the buildings look like they’re one bad render patch file away from being Arkham Knight on the PC levels of bad. If I had to see one more mountain that the cast ride toward or alongside, I think I’ll murder whoever did the FX for it. Plus if you have any love for the original’s stunning cinematography, don’t watch this expecting the same thing. It’s digital camera work all the way here which only really works when the fight scenes (admittedly the film’s strongest weapon) are on screen, otherwise it looks like it was made for TV and bad TV at that. The music is godawful precisely because they seem to think that we loved Yo-Yo Ma and Tan Dun’s epic score from the first film so we need to here Li Mu Bai’s and Tien’s love theme over and over again.
Finally, the cast is adrift in this whenever they’re called upon for serious acting chops and how similar they are to the roles from the first film. Natasha Liu Bordizzo feels like a less intense version of Zhang Ziyi’s character from the first film and Harry Shum. Jr tries but isn’t even close to Chang Chen’s nomadic lover from the original. Eugenia Yuan acts like a less threatening version of Cheng Pei-pei from the first film except with 50% percent more “All will die once I get my hands of the Green Destiny McGuffin- er, I mean sword!” Donnie can pull it off and Michelle can work with any kind of line or delivery but the rest of the cast look and sound like hires from Hong Kong’s celebrity circuit and Jason Scott Lee feels as natural amongst these people as Michael Biehn did in Dragon Squad. Which is a shame as Jason and the rest of the relative unknowns do have fun with their action scenes and camaraderie and they make a decent go of it despite being given no help with the script’s dogged insistence that we need this to be a sequel to CTHD. As a sidenote: if you record your dialogue in English originally and the Mandarin redub’s actors emote better than your own cast do, stop recording anything in English, ever again.
I think that’s what I’ll take away from this: this was a sequel that didn’t need to happen. If Netflix had just paid Yuen Woo-Ping, Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh to star in a film, they could have made a sequel to Wing Chun (I’d have happily watched that) and nobody would have cared. But it’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s like the Citizen Kane of Chinese films. You don’t go into a sequel to it with Netflix in your corner and the Weinstein’s in the other. You’re asking for a kicking. As it is, CTHD: Sword of Destiny is a decent Wuxia yarn with some great Yuen Woo-Ping action cinematography and choreography with standout performances from Yeoh, Yen and yes, even Jason Scott Lee.
It just has no business calling itself a sequel to Ang Lee’s original film. It feels like a 90-minute trailer for a TV series based on the original. And you know what? That might be its biggest shame of all.