Now showing in Hong Kong

Film review – Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen go through the motions in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

Wuxia sequel feels like confused piece of fan fiction that with its language and dubbing feels like an import in both the West and the East

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 February, 2016, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 February, 2016, 5:35pm

As our increasingly hazy memories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon come to be replaced by truncated highlight reels of its gravity-defying action, it may be easy to forget that the film was not so much a glossy wuxia epic as an archetypal Ang Lee movie – complete with repressed desire and larger-than-life romance curtailed by stringent, traditional Chinese customs.

It’s thus no surprise that Yuen Woo-ping, the legendary action choreographer of Crouching Tiger, has retained little of Lee’s narrative flair in Sword of Destiny, a sequel in theory but hardly in spirit. While it’s also adapted from Wang Dulu’s five-part Crane-Iron novel series, the new film, scripted by John Fusco (The Forbidden Kingdom, Netflix’s Marco Polo series), feels like a slapdash piece of fan fiction.

This follow-up effort by Yuen, who has taken over as director, only manages to highlight Lee’s masterful vision as a storyteller. While the Green Destiny – a fabled blade once wielded by the great swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) – was stolen by Zhang Ziyi’s character as a show of defiance against the aristocratic system in which she was trapped in the 2000 film, here it’s reduced to a mere MacGuffin.

Eighteen years after Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, reprising her role) lost Mu Bai, the noble warrior is still mourning the one great love she had left too late to acknowledge, due to her prearranged marriage to a certain Meng Si Zhao (Donnie Yen Ji-dan). But when the Green Destiny is targeted by a power-hungry villain (Jason Scott Lee), the nice guy Si Zhao aka Silent Wolf finally decides to come in from the friend zone to help his supposed fiancée.

READ ALSO: Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen and writer John Fusco discuss the Crouching Tiger sequel

While Lee’s soulful drama was anchored by two memorable pairs of star-crossed lovers, Yuen appears to have no idea what to do with his four leads. Just as the awkward pairing of Shu Lien and Silent Wolf conjures minimal sparks, the younger pair of Snow Vase (Italian-Chinese newcomer Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and Wei-fang (Glee star Harry Shum Jr) look as if they’re less bound by fate than they are by each other’s gorgeous eyes.

Sword of Destiny does entertain – in an unassuming way befitting many of the perfectly competent, thoroughly forgettable wuxia flicks that have populated Chinese-language cinema for decades. As the story follows Silent Wolf’s recruitment drive, a la Seven Samurai, all the way up to their defeat of the baddies, the Green Destiny sword remains a contrived plot device: a mythical weapon which, over the course of the film, proves useless time and again in its carriers’ quest to become invincible.

Finally, a few words on the language used in the film. When it was first announced that Sword of Destiny would be filmed in English, wuxia movie fanatics everywhere were understandably concerned about the cultural appropriation involved in this largely American-staffed sequel.

Although Yen emphasised in a November interview with the Post that the use of English represents “a new artistic angle”, and that the film would be screened in that language in both Hong Kong and mainland China “with the exception of a few smaller Chinese cities”, it hasn’t panned out as the actor expected. Sword of Destiny is dubbed in Cantonese (but not by Yeoh and Yen) in Hong Kong, and in Putonghua on the mainland.

The US-China co-production has therefore ended up a most curious case study of the irreversibly globalised cinema today: here’s a product that comes across as a peculiar import on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Like the heroic warriors wandering in and out of its narrative, Sword of Destiny doesn’t seem to belong anywhere.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is in cinemas now