Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016)
Director: Yuen Woo-Ping
Cast: Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Harry Shum Jr., Natasha Liu Bordizzo, and Jason Scott Lee
The Netflix Original film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is the sequel to Ang Lee’s 2000 classic which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Picking up 18 years after the events of the original movie, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) comes out of solitude to mourn the passing of a father figure. On the way to Peking, Shu Lien is ambushed by the West Lotus clan. Helping her to fend off the attackers is a mysterious masked swordsman (Donnie Yen).
After the failed assassination attempt on Shu Lien, the leader of the West Lotus clan, Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), sends one of his warriors named Wei Fang to steal the legendary Green Destiny, believing that the sword will help him rule the Martial World. While attempting to steal the sword, Wei Fang runs into another would-be thief, a young woman named Snow Vase.
Unknown to Wei Fang, his past shares a secret connection to Snow Vase. Soon after, Snow Vase asks Shu Lien to be her new martial arts teacher so she can gain the fighting skills to exact vengeance on Hades Dai. But Shu Lien is unsure whether her new student will go down a path of darkness or light.
The term sequel is broadly applied to Sword of Destiny in that Director Yuen Woo-Ping doesn’t recapture the spirit of the original film either visually, story-wise or thematically. Whereas Ang Lee infused a poetic beauty to the high-flying, sword dancing martial arts wuxia genre, Sword of Destiny doesn’t inspire any awe to the fantastical acrobatics. The action choreography is missing a grand scope. And a couple of the potentially big fight sequences are only shown as brief flashbacks. Further, many set pieces in which the action is taking place are noticeably CGI.
Sword of Destiny does have a number of story elements which more or less come together, but ultimately lacks ambition and epicness. The story would have been better served by fully developing one of these characters or relationships. If you went into the original film not knowing the story, you might assume that the biggest star, Chow Yun-Fat, would be the central character. Yet, it was Jen (Zhang Ziyi) who emerged as the “Hidden Dragon”, the primary protagonist in which the audience can emotionally invest in.
The drawback of the sequel is that it doesn’t emphatically answer who’s movie is this and why should we invest in these relationships? The weak connections between these characters wouldn’t be a stumbling block had the story didn’t attempt to manufacture brief moments of sentimentality.
Thematically the screenplay treads familiar ground in martial arts films. The internal struggles of these characters mostly involve a paper thin quest for vengeance and a long lost love. Above all, Sword of Destiny is attempting to convey that becoming a legend is not in who holds the Green Destiny sword but what lies in the heart of who yields it. The often repeated message is what separates a hero from a common mercenary is following the Iron Way, in other words to do what is righteous.
Though also set in ancient China, the original film’s subject matter resonated more strongly and related to modern times in how it was essentially about two women, one who is confined by honor and another bound by the cultural customs. Ang Lee’s classic transcended the typically masculine driven martial arts film genre by thoughtfully weaving in themes of feminism and freedom.
The ensemble cast makes use of the material given to them. Michelle Yeoh’s performance is solid, her character Shu Lien grounds the film and is clearly the wisest even if most of the men don’t listen to her advice. In her first movie role, Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Snow Vase is charismatic. She captures very well the mischievous and playful side to Snow Vase. Harry Shum Jr. as Wei Fang has a likable on-screen presence, but unfortunately like Snow Vase doesn’t receive enough development.
The ace in the hole, Donny Yen, is well cast as the stoic and enigmatic Silent Wolf. Yen gets more action scenes in the second half; however, the script doesn’t allow his character to be memorable for anything other than his superior fighting skills. As the top billed actor, there are certain points where the movie is desperately in need of his character to take over the story. Instead, the screen time is spread unevenly to a bunch of supporting characters.
The end result of Netflix’s attempt to breaking into the lucrative Chinese market is a middle of the road martial arts film. Sword of Destiny borrows certain elements from the original, even reworking a memorable piece of dialogue, but lacks the substance and visual flair. As an action film, there isn’t a single fight sequence which stands out. While the story itself is serviceable at best, it is cliché ridden; exactly the kind of material which dissuaded Ang Lee from making a sequel himself. If you haven’t seen the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, be sure to enjoy that film first. You won’t be missing out, if you opt to pass on the sequel.