Now, this was not entirely fair. A film should be approached with impartiality, and I believe I have been unconsciously sharpening my knives since I saw the first trailer for Netflix's new sequel to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As a favor to yourself before you watch this second film, go back and watch the 2000 original. It is superlative even in a strict technical sense; witness that first chase across the rooftops of Beijing, and the fluid elegance of the martial arts sequence between the two women that follows. Apart from the action scenes, there is the story, which alternates between pulp and mature, even elegiac wistfulness with uncommon grace.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny
By Ben Gruchow
March 2, 2016
There are moments where The Sword of Destiny finds that proper balance. Returning from the first film is Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, having aged barely at all), ruminating over the intervening years between now and the loss of the first film's swordsman Li Mu Bai. His name is invoked multiple times in the early passages of this film, and the significant thematic point appears to be posterity - how a fabled master's name and reputation can persist long after their death, and manifest in the reputation and standing of their loved ones. There is precious little time given over to this before the movie's main plot kicks into gear: a villainous warrior named Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), desiring the mythic Green Destiny sword, employs one of his followers to steal it from its current resting place in Beijing. That follower, Wei-Fang (Harry Shum, Jr.) is interrupted and captured during the theft by young apprentice Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). We are also introduced to Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), who has arrived seemingly to protect the Green Destiny from Hades Dai and his encroaching army. Wolf commands a force of his own, though, and there is a complicated history between himself and Shu Lien.
The Sword of Destiny is based on the fifth and final book in Wang Du Lu's Crane-Iron series; if you follow along with the beats outlined above, though, it's not hard to figure out that we're dealing with a fairly comprehensive remake of the 2000 film's storyline and themes. I have not read the source novel, so I'm ill-equipped to judge how accurate to it this film is; I would not be at all surprised to discover that the film's procession owes more to a nostalgia-happy culture than literary faithfulness. Were this not a direct sequel affiliated with the property, it would still be easy to watch the proceedings unfold and be regularly reminded of the earlier film - not through the organic growth of plot lines or characters, but through what appear to be deliberate references and call-outs to lines of dialogue and actions from before. The initial theft sequence, for example, seems to take place in roughly the same room and courtyard; much later in the film, Shu Lien echoes a line of dialogue that was originally provided by Mu Bai.
Provided, I must add, with a good deal more gravity and sense of consequence. It will come as little surprise that the references and callbacks here mostly serve to illustrate that The Sword of Destiny is an inferior sequel to the first film, and that what engendered dramatic truth and affection before plays like amateurish imitation now - flattering, but not to the new installment. Both films contrast a relationship between two older, seasoned warriors with two young and more impetuous, hot-headed ones. In the first film, these latter two consisted of Jen Yu and Lo, played by Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen. Jen, in particular, we found ourselves attached to: faced with the specter of a suffocating life as a royal placeholder, she rebelled in increasingly destructive and tragic ways that still did not ask that we root against her.
The new incarnation is Snow Vase; she is also given a solemn back story, one that hints at a woman who developed as a warrior not entirely due to the right reasons. There are two big differences between the incarnations of this character: One, Jen Yu's character arc existed as its own fierce and poignant reason for being; she was who she was to fulfill her own ends. Without spoiling anything, Snow Vase ends up functioning as more of an accessory, and she's less interesting for that. Two, Ziyi was a better actress: more expressive, more acquitted with the nuances of Jen's anger and fear.
We must be grateful, then, for the presence of Yeoh, who's Shu Lien simultaneously provides the glue that holds most of the plot together this time around while singularly outdoing just about everyone around her in terms of evoking great wisdom, skill, and emotion. We are meant to feel something in regard to her relationship with Silent Wolf, who is as much a part of her history as Mu Bai was; we do not feel much, but the extent to which this storyline succeeds is due entirely to Yeoh's ability to make us believe that we are indeed witnessing the texture and the passage of time in a warrior's life, rather than a plot thread established because the movie would otherwise lack a co-lead. Of course, the irony here is that Yeoh needs no co-lead to carry this film, and all of the weight of Shu Lien's storyline here rests on her taking on an apprentice and shielding the Green Destiny from those who would do harm with it.
This does not hide the fact that this is a colossally overstuffed and underfed narrative; the running time may state a fleet 96 minutes, but you'll be hard-pressed to believe it as the film enters what feels like its third hour of incident and plot machination. Much of this is crudely functional, and mostly perfunctory; in all of the many martial-arts sequences, there is precisely one that manages to illustrate the series' concept of Wudan martial arts in a new-ish way: a battle over a frozen lake that threatens to break apart with each blow landed gives a dreamlike feeling of weightlessness and poise and dignity that exists nowhere else in the film.
Why does the 2000 film work so well and the 2016 film, adequate wuxia fantasy that it may be on its own, largely fail to measure up to it? Let's go back to that rooftop chase and courtyard fight between the two women in the first film for a moment. There's a stateliness to this setpiece. Ang Lee and cinematographer Peter Pau achieved some kind of magical alchemy by being able to move the camera in and out of the scene dimensionally while still retaining the sense of being an observer. The performers in this sequence move with incredible speed and strength, and this is what we are observing. There's an unfussiness to the way that speed and strength are captured and showcased that not only ages very well, but quietly and elegantly affirms the world's existence. We believe in this universe partly because the movie doesn't try to wow us with it. It's simply there, a canvas on top of which feats of marvelous skill are executed. That elegance also pervades the dramatic sequences, where the camera sits back and entrusts the weight of the performance to the actors.
The Sword of Destiny is too skittish to do that; its sequences are heavy with slow-motion, extreme camera angles, fast movement, and fast cutting. It's also got a deleterious emphasis on its digital nature: this was shot with a Red camera - which can produce lovely, filmlike results when used correctly - and even the slower moments are suffused with a truly hideous amount of digital intermediate and oversaturation. This backs off a little bit as the movie winds toward its weightless climax - in more ways than one; the CGI doubles in this movie are so pervasive that you wonder if additional scenes were conceived after the flesh-and-blood actors had left the set - but it's enough to undo most of the innate goodwill it might have gotten as a sequel to such a superior piece of work. This film needed much more discipline and confidence in its production.