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Chinese language cinema

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny - more martial arts wizardry

15 years after the visual brilliance of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wowed world’s cinema-goers, the balletic aerial battles return in much-anticipated sequel with Yuen Woo-ping at the helm

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 February, 2016, 4:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 February, 2016, 4:01am

It’s exactly 15 years since Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon arrived at the Oscars. Nominated for 10 awards, including best picture and best director, it walked away with four, including best foreign language film.

The significance was not lost. Never before had a martial arts film triumphed in Hollywood, where knowledge of the genre seemed to begin and end with the films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Rarely had one been delivered with such grace and poetry.

The film introduced global audiences of the day to wuxia fiction and went on to gross US$213 million worldwide. It inspired a slew of other Chinese-language “arthouse” martial arts films – notably Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

So it’s something of a surprise to see that it’s taken this long to realise a Crouching Tiger sequel – thanks primarily to the tenacity of film mogul Harvey Weinstein, the driving force behind the project. “Harvey’s been waiting a long time to do this,” says Michelle Yeoh, who reprises her role as the female warrior Yu Shu Lien.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, given Weinstein’s history. In the past, he restored and released Yuen Woo-ping’s Iron Monkey at his former company Miramax; more recently, The Weinstein Company announced plans to collaborate with Hong Kong’s Celestial Pictures in remaking two Shaw Brothers Studio classics, King Hu’s Come Drink With Me and Sun Chung’s The Avenging Eagle.

“Harvey and I share a mutual love for Chinese cinema and for high-end martial arts cinema – Zhang Yimou, King Hu and some of the greats,” explains John Fusco, the screenwriter entrusted with penning the script for what, after several title changes, is being called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.

An avid martial arts practitioner, Fusco had already collaborated with Weinstein on Marco Polo, a Netflix-released TV series about the 13th-century adventurer which featured several jaw-dropping combat scenes.

Asked by Weinstein to come on board the English-language sequel, Fusco was a long-time fan of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, which was taken from the fourth novel in Wang Dulu’s epic Crane-Iron Pentalogy.

“I was so excited to see that kind of wuxia literature and aesthetic represented, with that kind of quality, and taken to that new level – with the universal storytelling,” he says. “I just felt it broke new ground.”

In particular, he credits “pioneer” Yuen Woo-ping, who gained international recognition for choreographing the fight scenes in the Wachowskis’ 1999 sci-fi epic The Matrix before working with Lee on Crouching Tiger. Fusco later scripted Rob Minkoff’s 2008 martial arts drama The Forbidden Kingdom, starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan, upon which Yuen worked as the action choreographer.

And now they reunite for the Crouching Tiger sequel – this time with Yuen as director. “He’s always raising the bar on himself,” says Fusco. “He would look at a scene that I scripted out and say, ‘What haven’t I done?’ and ‘What didn’t we do in the first one?’ And, ‘What would be true to the story? What is our geography?’”

But can the fights eclipse the beauty of the combat scenes in the bamboo forest or in the treetops that typified the first film? Fusco smiles enigmatically. “He was always pushing me to be really creative with the fight scenes.”

Of course, it means no Ang Lee at the helm, something Yeoh was never concerned about. “That’s not Ang! When have you ever seen Ang do the same thing twice? I think it would be terribly unfair to ask Ang to do the sequel. You know, the burden of the first film, and then, ‘What are you going to do [now]?’ I think he did what he did for Crouching Tiger.”

Lee’s absence was enough for Zhang Ziyi, one of Yeoh’s co-stars from the original, to decline any involvement in the sequel.

For Fusco, it was vital to go back to the original source material, which continues the legacy of the mythically powerful sword, The Green Destiny. “It’s hallowed ground. There’s no doubt about it. It’s a daunting endeavour,” he says.

“But when I went back to Wang Dulu’s pentalogy, I got very excited because the time passage from book four to book five [Iron Knight, Silver Vase] is pretty much the time passage from the original film to now. We’re not bringing Michelle back and saying it’s a year later. It’s 15 years later.”

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny introduces “a new generation of star-crossed lovers and sword heroes”, according to Fusco, albeit seasoned with “the original’s DNA strands, by way of Michelle and Master Yuen”.

Then there’s the addition of 52-year-old action star Donnie Yen, playing Silent Wolf – a role that presented some issues. “How do you deliver the performance, playing a Chinese swordsman, but in English?” Yen asks, rhetorically. “I don’t want to sound like I’m doing Shakespeare!”

READ MORE: Donnie Yen talks Ip Man 3, Star Wars spin-off and his final kung fu film

Yen admits it was this linguistic challenge that drew him to spending months in New Zealand, where the film was shot. “When Harvey asked me, he spent a whole year trying to convince me to do this part,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it. ... But when he finally decided to shoot it in English, I thought, ‘Oh, there’s a fresh take to it.’”

Another difference is the film’s distribution. Unlike the original, which was unveiled at the illustrious Cannes Film Festival, the sequel is set to be released simultaneously in Imax cinemas and on Netflix, the co-investor with The Weinstein Company in the film’s US$60 million budget.

Already this has caused controversy, with four of the largest cinema chains in the US, including AMC and Regal, refusing to show the film. While the cinema chains believe such a business model is detrimental to their business, “I think the whole movie-going experience is evolving quickly,” argues Fusco.

“I think it’s really what [chief content officer] Ted Sarandos from Netflix said: it’s the choice between going to the football stadium for the big experience or watching it in the comfort of your home. Movie-goers are really dictating the way they want to see their entertainment now.”

However viewers choose to see the film across the globe, there can be no doubt Yuen’s film will be one of the most anticipated Asian titles of the year. The 53-year-old Yeoh’s first martial arts movie since 2010’s Reign of Assassins, she teases with the idea that this sequel will leave audiences breathless.

“It’s really the world of martial arts at war – that is what it is. I think Yuen woo-ping is the perfect choice,” she says.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny opens on February 19