Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has an important legacy in the film world. It was a surprise international hit, made on a small-scale budget with beautiful stunts and fight choreography, enhanced by a heartrending plot and a group of incredible actors. It is easily one of the most important foreign language films in western cinema history because it proved that western audiences would not automatically shy away from subtitled movies, which had been Hollywood gospel at the time.
So when I say that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny fails to live up to its predecessor in nearly every respect, it is with a very heavy heart indeed.
Directed by Yuen Woo-ping (who choreographed the fights for the first film), Sword of Destiny feels westernized in every sense of the word. For one, the film was shot in English. I gamely switched my Netflix over to Chinese with English subtitles, only to find that the actors’ mouths weren’t synching with the Mandarin dialogue. After the original film gained such respect with the subtitles intact, it seems painfully out of touch to simply film the whole sequel in English.
Then there’s location to consider. The first film was shot in China, but the sequel opted for the glorious backdrop of New Zealand. Problem is, nowhere in the world quite looks like New Zealand, and the country already sort of made its mark on the fantasy landscape by effectively becoming Middle-earth to the movie-going public. (The majority of their tourism is built on exactly that these days.) Before that, it was already pretty well-known for being ancient Greece in both the Xena and Hercules television shows. The scenery is recognizable enough to be distracting, and that’s without counting various other visual cues that only seem to play into it: for example, the villain’s evil tower HQ reads a lot like Isengard.
Crouching Tiger‘s trademark was the beautiful wirework stunts, making the characters seem to float on air from the ground to tree branches and rooftops alike. And while that unique wirework is still in play, it is also CGI half of the time as well. The change is too obvious when the wires aren’t being used, and it makes the film look less grounded, cheaper, and campier. Outside of that, the fight choreography is still gorgeous, but it’s a shame that these techniques couldn’t be reconciled into a more seamless film.
Also, there are a group of fighters in the film who literally read as Sif and the Warriors Three. I mean, exactly. There’s Thunder Fist, the sage one (Hogun); Turtle Ma, the drunken merry one (Volstagg); Flying Blade, the posh one who speaks in a British accent (Fandral); and Silver Dart Shi, the sole awesome lady (Sif). I understand that crews of fighting friends come with their own tropes, but when the Thor films are pretty current in the public consciousness, it might have been better to differentiate them a bit more thoughtfully.
Honestly, there are too many disparate elements at work in this story. At its core, it is a continuation of the previous film, bringing the audience back into the tragic tale of Shu Lien and her lost love Li Mu Bai, and answering the question of what became of Lo and Jen Yu, following her potentially fatal jump off the side of a mountain. But there are so many other threads to pull, and far too many new characters to make sense of the thing. The story is sloppily paced and relies almost entirely on the action sequences to drive a fairly complicated plot. There are about seven characters who shouldn’t even be there, and could honestly be relegated to an entirely different movie.
And all of this is too bad because the remnants of a wonderful film are still present in Sword of Destiny. Michelle Yeoh is perfection as always, and continues to play Yu Shu Lien with deadly poise and wisdom. Her relationship with Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) over the course of this film shows gives more opportunity to explore the dynamic of a female mentor with a female apprentice, something that western films rarely give any screen time to at all, regardless of genre. In fact, the relationships of all the women in this film are fascinating, and if the script had been willing to carve away some of the more tedious character arcs to showcase those relationships, the movie might have been much more engaging.
While Sword of Destiny was based on the final book in the Crane-Iron Series (Crouching Tiger was based on the penultimate book of the same series), the film comes off like an exercise from people who willfully forgot or ignored everything that made the first movie such a success. It was, at its heart, a personal story of love and loss, framed by elegant action. This film managed to muddy all of those aspects into a strange stew. And for Netflix to distribute this film while its busy trying to build its own brand is an awkward misstep to see them make. (Not that they haven’t made any others.) So if you want to be completist and watch this movie, enjoy, but put the first film out of your mind. They don’t mesh together, and a certain amount of cognitive dissonance might arise from trying to press these alternate universes together.
Or you could just watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon again. It’s a glorious today as it was sixteen years ago, like a perfectly aged wine.
Emily Asher-Perrin was is also very curious about whether “Hades” is a name in Mandarin. Because if not, that villain name is ridiculous. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.