IT’S BEEN 16 years since the first Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film brought high-wire heroics to the world. Back then its heady mixture of Eastern philosophy and floaty fisticuffs in spectacular surrounds was so refreshing that it picked up four Oscars including Best Foreign Language Film in 2001.
At the helm was acclaimed director Ang Lee who would lead hard-boiled action hero Chow Yun-Fat, Asian cinema starlet Zhang Ziyi and high-kicking Bond girl Michelle Yeoh to international fame. Ziyi would go on to find further acclaim in Yimou Zhang’s martial arts epics Hero and House of Flying Daggers.
Only Yeoh returns in this long-awaited sequel directed by Woo-Ping Yuen (Drunken Master), produced by Netflix and distributed exclusively to its customers and select cinemas.
We find Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) still in mourning for the dead Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat) and returning from enforced solitude to the familiar terracotta-tiled roofs of her past to pay her respects to her fallen mentor Sir Te. His death has caused turmoil in the land as rivals vie to become the new feudal lord to fill the void he’s left behind.
One in particular, Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) is searching for the Green Destiny, Mu Bai’s legendary sword, still kept at the home of Sir Te. Now Lien must help fend off an army to protect it but she has some help from old flame Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) and a band of honourable misfits.
Also tied to the fate of the sword are two young fighters: the courageous but misguided Wei Fang (Harry Sum Jr) and the beautiful but oddly-named Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) whose lives are entwined in a way that becomes clear as the story unfolds.
While CTHD: Sword of Destiny is a welcome return to the world of Wudan, it fails to capture the same originality of the first. Maybe this is because the formula has been so widely replicated but it might also have to do with its attempt at catering to Western audiences.
Probably the most stark example of this is the decision to have the cast speak entirely in English, rather than Mandarin. It’s an understandable move to broaden the movie’s appeal but it loses some authenticity and the delightful musicality of China’s most widely-spoken language.
The film also suffers from the loss of Yun-Fat, who doesn’t appear in flashback scenes or indeed in any cuts from the previous movie because none are used. It’s a long time since we last entered the world of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the absence of any solid reminders is keenly felt. What images there are of Li Mu Bai are by necessity obscured in short, dream-like sequences.
While the addition of Yen, arguably China’s biggest action star at the moment, brings some much needed heft to proceedings it is mostly in the action sequences and not in the emotional drama found within Du Lu Wang’s book and John Fusco’s screenplay.
Also missing is any proper explanation of what Lien has been up to in the years since Mu Bai’s death, which would have been a welcome sight. Yeoh is very much the star of this movie, like a former champion returning to the scene of their great victory older and wiser some years on. She’s still as watchable as ever and to not flesh out her character’s past on-screen is disappointing.
Despite its shortcomings, CTHD: Sword of Destiny is an exciting martial arts action spectacular that will satisfy fans of the original but fails to capture the same essence of the first film. Then again, it did set the bar very high. Also, watch out for the captivating Bordizzo in the future.
Final word: A fun, fantasy martial arts adventure that falls short of matching its prequel but still packs a punch. Hopefully this is the start of a franchise that will see us return to the world of Wudan again soon.
If you liked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny you would also like:
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- House of Flying Daggers