Sixteen Years Later, We Rejoin Our Heroes . . .
At the moment, Hollywood seems to be strip-mining the ’80s and ’90s for all the material it can possibly leach out of those decades. (There’s even a production company out there trying to do a remake of my very favorite obscure one-season TV show of all time, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, even though no one has ever heard of it.) This has led to everything from an updated version of the family sitcom Full House to some really ill-advised remakes of films like Total Recall and Robocop. It would be easy to say this is totally driven by Gen X nostalgia, but I think there’s more to it. For example, that Full House remake (Fuller House, yes, I know) is produced by and appearing on the subscription service Netflix. Dozens of cable networks have gotten into the original production game, and done very well at it. Between that and the proliferation of online services, I think there’s an argument to be made that media outlets are hungry for content that will attract viewers. And nothing looks better than content with a known track record and pre-existing audience.
So now companies like Netflix produce sequels to movies that first played some sixteen years ago. How does a sixteen-year-old movie possibly require a sequel? Answer: It doesn’t. Yet here we are, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.
I can argue with the impulse. I can fault these companies for not being more original, for relying on the familiar rather than taking risks. But two of my favorite movies last year, Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, were sequels to movies that appeared decades earlier. I could long for more original, experimental, and risk-taking content. (And to be fair, there’s plenty of that to be had as well.) But it turns out I’m just as susceptible to the lure of the familiar and nostalgic as these companies expect me to be. And I enjoyed Sword of Destiny.
A week earlier, I went back and watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which I hadn’t seen since it came out. I had forgotten just how good it is, how beautiful, and how much gravitas Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat bring to an elegant story about aging, legacy, and past mistakes. It’s a coming of age story in a sense, but one that focuses on the mentors as much as it does the young woman struggling to find her place in the world.
I want to resist comparing Sword of Destiny to its predecessor, because pretty much anything would suffer in comparison. Fortunately, and I think this is one of the film’s strengths, Sword of Destiny stands entirely on its own. The few references to the first film feel like bits of background that serve to make the story richer, just as references to the past made the first film feel richer and more lived in.
Michelle Yeoh returns as Yu Shu Lien, a legendary warrior who has mostly retired from that role but now finds herself once again defending the Green Destiny sword from those who would abuse its power. She still mourns Li Mu Bai, but doesn’t have much time for that: A young warrior from a villainous martial arts clan is captured trying to steal the sword. However, it just so happens that the young woman who turned him in was also trying to steal the sword, but switched sides when the guards moved in. (Spoiler: These two hook up by the end of the movie. This is preordained.) Confronted by Shu Lien, the young woman, Snow Vase, begs to become her student, to train in the Iron Way. Shu Lien is skeptical. She summons warriors from the Iron Way to her aid, and when they arrive, receives a terrible shock: One of them turns out to be her fiancé, whom she thought had been killed decades before. Turns out, he faked his death so she could be with Li Mu Bai. (But as we will recall from our previous episode, Li Mu Bai honored his friend’s memory by not moving in on his girl. Meng Sizhao’s sacrifice was for nothing. The tragedy! Shu Lien’s got some things to work through after this.) They’re attacked, many battles ensue. The body count is high, and villain Hades Dai will stop at nothing to gain the power of Green Destiny.
It’s a pretty good story, it turns out. Several plotlines are deftly handled and come to satisfying ends. The fighting set pieces are all you could hope for. The tavern brawl in particular is delightful. I don’t know what it is about a small band of charismatic, goofy, yet highly competent fighters that makes for such a great time, but there it is. (The Iron Way band very much reminded me of Sif and the Warriors Three from the Marvel Thor movies, whom I also love.)
What did feel weird: The film is in English. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. I’m mostly grateful that the filmmakers didn’t feel a need to populate the movie with white actors. It’s a Chinese story, and it looks Chinese. Which may be why it was strange hearing the characters speaking English throughout. I, for one, have no problem reading subtitles, and on a movie like this, they might actually add to the atmosphere. (The Russian urban fantasy film Night Watch is another that’s enhanced by the subtitles. It’s very Russian, it needs to sound Russian.) The actors are all of Asian descent and come from all over the world—Asian-American Jason Scott Lee plays villain Hades Dai, for example, and Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who plays Snow Vase, is Australian—suggesting a wide net was cast for actors and this was never intended to be a Chinese-made film. The director, Woo-Ping Yuen, was the fight choreographer on the first movie, and that connection reassures me that there’s at least some aesthetic continuity with the first film.
I can’t claim to know much about the conventions of Chinese martial arts cinema. What I do know: It’s a genre that has its own history and tropes. These are medieval-like settings involving various periods of Chinese history. The fight scenes are stylized and beautiful, and many of them famously use wirework to achieve fantastical effects. Warriors of certain mystical skill levels can float across rooftops and spin into their opponents from across the room. From a western perspective, I might call them wizards—there isn’t as definite a line between the physical and the magical as one might be used to in European-derived fantasy. If you’re not used to the aesthetic, it takes a little getting used to, but once you do, it’s gorgeous.
What I really enjoy about both these movies is seeing recognizable tropes of epic fantasy in a non-European setting. Named swords of power, young warriors struggling with issues of honor and duty, castles and forests, quests and battles galore. That thing that many people say they want—new and different and original epic fantasy drawing on other than European backgrounds—it’s right here. If you’re jonesing for a good dose of the stuff after the end of the Lord of the Rings films, here’s your fix.
Like the first film, Sword of Destiny is particularly focused on women warriors, without commentary or fanfare. It just is. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon featured the young woman Jen, torn between her outlaw mentor Jade Fox and the honorable Shu Lien. Sword of Destiny is also filled with women—a Blind Enchantress, good warriors and bad warriors, dead mentors and new friends. It’s so casually done, I wish it would become a model: It’s not difficult including women in this kind of story. They fit naturally. You don’t even have to shine a light on it, and I feel a little overbearing shining a light on it now. But the issue is important to me, and it’s important that we have examples to point to showing that yes, great women characters abound in fantasy film, and we need to support movies that include them.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a famously ambiguous ending: Jen abandons her inner conflict entirely to fling herself into the cosmos to grant her beloved’s wish—or to jump off a bridge, depending on how you interpret it. Unlike its predecessor, the ending to Sword of Destiny has no ambiguity. Two happy couples ride off to Wudan Mountain to deliver Green Destiny to where it will finally be safe. It’s the right ending, it’s a satisfying ending. But like the English language, it strikes a different tone than I was expecting. Which is one of the great challenges of updating existing creative works a decade or more after their release—how do you manage your audience’s expectations, when they already have a clear idea of what they want out of a remake or sequel? I almost wish I hadn’t watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon again, because I think I would have had a different experience with Sword of Destiny coming to it fresh.
I skimmed a few reviews of the film after writing my own, and nearly all of them panned it, mainly for the crime of not being Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Reviewers gushed about how blown away they were by the first film, how revelatory it was, how it was their first exposure to Chinese martial arts movies. And how the second movie didn’t—couldn’t—replicate that amazing experience of seeing that kind of movie for the first time. Of course it couldn’t, and this reaction from reviewers confirms my own thought, that Sword of Destiny would have been a much better film, not by actually changing anything about the movie, but by removing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that weight of expectation, from the title.
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