Sword of Destiny is not a terrible film, but it’s hard to find who exactly this was made for.
“Better five who can fight, than five hundred who can run.”
I don’t remember all that much from Ang Lee’s still-hailed wuxia action epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I first watched it when I was somewhat younger than I was, and at an age where reading subtitles was about as arduous as picking up Wang Dulu’s pentalogy of books and reading them in one sitting. I remember it being good, and some sequences still stand out in my memory, but other than that it’s completely lost to me.
Which is probably for the best when it comes to watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny, which I will be calling by its subtitle alone from now, as it appears to have very little in common with its predecessor.
Michelle Yeoh returns as Yu Shu Lien, the famous warrior who is on a quest to find the mysterious Sword of Destiny, aka the Green Destiny, a powerful weapon that will make its wielder unbeatable in combat. She is ambushed in the forest by members of the West Lotus clan, a group of warriors led by Hades Dai, who wants the sword for himself. Aided by the mysterious Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), she fights them off, and ends up in Peking, where she immediately finds the sword. It’s sitting in plain sight, for anyone to grab.
And that’s exactly what someone does, as that night a young man named Wei-Fang (Harry Shum, jr.) – who was in the group that attached Yu – tries to steal it for Hades Dai, but is intercepted by Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), a young woman who has a grudge against Hades. As all of this is going down, Silent Wolf, who has a history with Hades because who doesn’t, goes to tavern to hire some warriors to help defend the sword. Then we find out everyone is connected in just the dumbest, soap opera ways (birth-switches, people being assumed dead), and everyone fights everyone until the credits roll.
Like I said before, I don’t remember the first film all that well, but it’s very clear to even me that Sword of Contrivances has close zero connection to Ang Lee’s picture. Sure, it shares a name, and Michelle Yeoh’s character returns – as well as the basic plot of the all-powerful sword – but while Crouching Tiger had a style and an identity that was so distinctly Chinese, this feels incredibly Western. I understand the first film was made with American audiences in mind, but it never sacrificed its biggest appeal, that it was a Chinese film first and foremost. Sword of Terrible Mandarin Dubbing was not only filmed with English dialogue but shot mostly in New Zealand, a place many people would recognise as being visually different to rural China. There is some Chinese on-location shooting here and there, and it makes for some lovely wide shots and panoramics but that only serves to emphasise how not Chinese the rest of the film looks.
The screenplay was written by John Fusco, whose other big contribution to wuxia cinema was The Forbidden Kingdom, which is a fine film in and of itself. But there’s something about the story that feels like it was written by someone who has more knowledge of Western fantasy than Eastern. The story, like the original, was taken from Du Lu Wang’s source material, never feels genuine. The dialogue is OK in a lot of places, but ultimately tries really, really hard to emulate the style of the previous film too much. It comes off as weird, and forced, with countless nature-themed metaphors and mystical nonsense-speech. “It is said that a swordsman’s name will last for twenty years beyond his passing. But I believe that some names will live forever” is one example of this sort of bizarre gibberish.
The action is fun, and the strongest aspect of the film; it’s certain that not a lot of time goes by without a good fight scene. The main cast can all throw down, some a lot better than others and the choreography is good as anything else you’re likely to see anytime soon. That’s veteran director Yuen Woo-Ping who helms this film and while he’s more known for his action direction, he’s had several goes behind the camera as well, with a career going as far back as the Jackie Chan mini-classic Drunken Master. Again, don’t expect the heights of some of the best wuxia films, but they’re certainly fun to watch.
In the end, Sword of Destiny offers very little new, and even the returning elements seem out of place here. The project can’t escape its own cash-grabby prison, much like Wei, and after all this time it’s hard for it to find a place for itself. In the fifteen years since its initial release, there have been countless copycats and similar films, pretty much all of which make better sequels than this.
Verdict: If you only watch the first Crouching Tiger movie, you’re not missing much
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall enjoyment: 4/10
Crouching Tigers: 0
Hidden Dragons: 0
Swords of Destiny: 1
What should you be watching instead: A Touch of Zen
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016)
Also known as: 臥虎藏龍：青冥寶劍
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Writer: John Fusco
Donnie Yen – Silent Wolf/Meng Sizhao
Michelle Yeoh – Yu Shu Lien
Harry Shum, Jr. – Wei-Fang
Natasha Liu Bordizzo – Snow Vase
Jason Scott Lee – Hades Dai
Eugenia Yuan – Blind Enchantress
Roger Yuan – Iron Crow
JuJu Chan – Silver Dart Shi
Chris Pang – Flying Blade
Woon Young Park – Thunder Fist Chan
Darryl Quon – Turtle Ma
Veronica Ngo – Mantis