Monday, 29 February 2016

Film Review - 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Sword of Destiny'






Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved to be such a big hit, when it was released about sixteen years ago, that it was probably something of a surprise to a lot of people, at the time, that plans for a sequel weren't put into motion almost immediately. It's not like there wasn't plenty of potential for a sequel, either - with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon being an adaptation of one of a series of five popular Chinese novels.

The explanation for the lack of a sequel is fairly straight-forward, though. Despite the success that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon enjoyed in the West, where it was something new and different, it really wasn't treated as anything special in its native country. In China, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon amounted to little more than just another wuxia/martial arts film (of which there have always been plenty) - and, the overall slow pace of the film, along with a shortage of action when compared to similar films, seemed to have further hindered its efforts to stand out. On top of that, there was also the issue of the performer's accents (an issue that Westerns audiences wouldn't even have noticed if it wasn't pointed out to them) - with much of the cast required to perform in a language that they simply weren't familiar with and the results, naturally, being mixed.

This, more than anything, should explain why it has taken almost sixteen years for a sequel to be released - and also, perhaps, why it feels as though that sequel, now that it is here, is one that seems to be aimed predominately at appealing to a Western audience.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Sword of Destiny (just Sword of Destiny from this point forward) draws its inspiration from the fifth, and final, novel in this well-regarded series - but, one thing that will become apparent, very quickly, is that Sword of Destiny is also a very different sort of film. Directed by Yeun Woo-ping (a highly-regarded martial arts choreographer whose credits include the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), rather than Ang Lee, Sword of Destiny lacks much of the deliberate stylistic flourishes that Ang Lee brought to his own film - while, at the same time, it's faster pace and greater focus on action makes it a much more straight-forward 'action film' than the original was. Whether this fact, in itself, would count as a negative is purely down to personal preference, of course - though, either way, it is probably best to be aware of these differences going in.

Another change that will become apparent from the start is that, rather than Mandarin or Cantonese, Sword of Destiny was actually filmed in English - with the option for a dubbed track being added later. This might seem like a very strange choice for the sequel to a Chinese film - though, it does seem to support the idea that this film was made with a Western audience in mind. Once again, whether this is a negative comes down to personal preference. I watched the film in English - and, once I managed to get over my initial confusion, I wasn't overly bothered by it. This is far from the first film to take a bit of creative license with the issue of language, after all.

Anyway - on to the film, itself.

Eighteen years after the events of the first film, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) emerges from her self-imposed isolation to attend the funeral of a close friend, Sir Te - who also happens to have been the one entrusted with possession of Green Destiny, the sword that once belonged to Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun-fat, in the original film). It's only intended as a brief return to the civilised world for Shu Lien, though - meant simply to give her time to pay her respects.

At the same time, though, an infamous warlord known as Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) learns of the location of the Green Destiny and, believing the legend that has grown up around the sword (that no one who wields it has ever lost a battle), sets a plan in motion to claim it as his own. At the behest of the blind seer who brought him the news of its location, though, Hades Dai sends only a single thief to slip in and steal the blade - Wei-feng (Harry Shum, Jr.). Wei-feng's attempt to steal the Green Destiny is interrupted when he encounters a young woman called Snow Vase (Nastasha Liu Bordizzo), who also intends to steal the sword, and he is captured and imprisoned. With Wei-feng in custody, Snow Vase is able to ingratiate herself, even convincing Shu Lien to take her on as a student - but, it is only a matter of time until Hades Dai makes another attempt to claim the sword.

Meanwhile, a mysterious figure, known as Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), gathers together an eccentric group of warriors to help defend the Green Destiny for reasons of his own. And, from there, things start to get really complicated - as a complex web of coincidental encounters, past relationships, and shifting loyalties play out around this single sword.

Taken on its own (as it really should be) Sword of Destiny is actually a fairly entertaining little action film. As you might expect from a veteran like Yeun Woo-ping, the film's various action-sequences are the true high-light, here - with a sequence taking place over a frozen lake, in particular, being a stand-out moment for the film.

Also, while the decision to film in English might seem odd, it didn't seem to hinder the cast's performances. Of course, this is likely due to the fact that, apart from Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen, the rest of the cast were native English-speakers. There were a few strange moments (where, for example, Michelle Yeoh's or Donnie Yen's accented English sounded especially conspicuous next to other members of the cast), but it was never overly distracting.

Of course, even when taken on its own, there are still some fairly serious issues with Sword of Destiny - mostly due to the film's plotting and charaterisation.

Snow Vase and Wei-feng, for example, each had the potential to be fascinating characters - but, the film's suggestion of a quickly developing romantic connection felt forced and unnecessary. Also, the incredibly convoluted history that is revealed between the two (along with the sheer coincidence of them meeting when and where they did) is one of those things that the audience is just going to have to try to force themselves to accept.

Meanwhile, the revelation of an equally convuloted romantic history between Shu Lien and Silent Wolf is not only an unconvincing development (being the result, here, of little more than a few brief discussions) - but, it also retroactively undermines the 'tragic romance' aspect that was so important to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The eccentric warriors that Silent Wolf gathers together to help defend the Green Destiny were an entertaining group, sure (and, I certainly wouldn't have minded seeing more of them) - but, they also suffered from recieving very little screen-time, and minimal character development, over the course of the film.

The 'Blind Enchantress' character (played by Eugenia Yuan) was also somewhat problematic, for me. For one thing, we never did get any true sense of what was motivating her actions, beyond some vaguely defined desire for revenge. If there was intended to be some connection between her appearence, here, and the orignal film, then it was one that was lost on me (though, to be fair, it has been a very long time since I last watched the orignal). Beyond that, there's also the fact that her abilities are clearly, and very overtly, supernatural in nature - which just seems out of place.

Sure, you could argue that the 'wire-fu' exploits of the fighters, here, would have to count as 'supernatural', also - but, that's just a common trait of the 'wuxia' genre. Beyond that, I just don't recall Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon having any overt elements of 'magic' - so, it felt a bit strange to suddenly have that introduced in the sequel. At the very least, it felt like there should have been more time spent developing this character, and establishing her role in this fictional world.

Hades Dai is a character who, also, suffers from a lack of any real development - though, in his case, it probably doesn't matter as much. He is, after all, a very familiar character-type - a violent warlord, obsessed with power and with a loyal army at his disposal. As the film's primary antagonist, his only real role is to serve as a convincing threat - and, Jason Scott Lee proves to be perfectly capable of fulfilling that role. Hades Dai is a genuinely entertaining presense, whenever he is on screen - and, there was a genuine sense of savagery to his action-sequences that made them particularly entertaining. Honestly, the film probably would have benefitted from more screen-time for Hades Dai.

As a sequel to a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sword of Destiny is a film that will (and, honestly, already has) disappointing fans of Ang Lee's efforts in a number of ways. Tonally, it's simply too different from the original to appeal to the same audience - with the tragic romance and sweeping drama of the first film being replaced by a clearer focus on small-scale, though entertaining, action. But, even when taken on its own, the film is not without its fair share of issue. Still, while Sword of Destiny isn't going to be remembered with the same fondness that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is, there is still a perfectly entertaining action film, here, for anyone who is willing to give it a chance.

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