Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, simultaneously released on Netflix as well as in selected theatres worldwide, finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Inevitably, it is subject to endless comparisons to its predecessor, Ang Lee’s modern classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and now finds itself as something of a made-for-TV movie on Netflix. Considered in these terms, its success as a sequel seems doomed to failure. But, this movie is not just a sequel. As a Chinese-made movie that has enjoyed a simultaneous release on Netflix, Sword of Destiny is in a unique position that allows it to bridge the oft-cavernous divide between mainstream and Asian cinema.
Directed by the legendary choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen, the film begins 16 years after the original, returning to the age-old battle between good and evil for the sword of destiny, guarded by the legendary swordswoman Yu Shu Lien, with Michelle Yeoh returning to the role. Loosely draped around this archetype are sub-narratives that tend in turn to the estranged relationship between Yu Shu Lien and Donnie Yen’s Silent Wolf, with the playful relationship between Snow Vase and Wei Fang, (played respectively by newcomer Natasha Liu Bordizzo and Harry Shum of Glee fame) acting as a counterpoint. Yuen adheres closely to the dramatics of the martial art genre, ensuring that such entanglements are predictably loosened by the bloodshed of war.
While the plot may be uninspired and typical of the wuxia flick, the cinematography of the film is more successful to this end. While Woo-Ping Yuen dishes up the obligatory fight scenes that the genre demands, these scenes are well crafted and vibrant. At the hands of Yuen, these scenes showcase the pride and joy of the martial arts film. Each is filled with elements of visual poetry – a tracing sword sending armatures of dust to the wind; an eye framed within two spears; a sword pinning a silhouette to a paper screen door. War is made a dance, and death an art.
Yuen’s stylistic endeavours continues to find itself embedded in the visual discourse of the film, particularly in its reconfigurations of the battle between light and dark. Interestingly, Yuen also hints that there is more to this fight than black and white, represented symbolically throughout the film in the green sword of destiny, but a coherent comment on the ambiguity of good and evil fails to emerge. The use of CGI effects is also somewhat of a letdown in this respect. Yuen’s use of setting is one part inspired, but two parts ambitious and unfulfilled in this film’s short run time of 90 minutes.
While not worth the acclaim of its predecessor, Sword of Destiny is a toothy and well-crafted romp that enjoys an accessibility that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did not, in part due to the entirely English speaking cast. While some critics who remain dedicated to the original may find this move an artless one, it must be questioned as to why seeing Chinese actors speaking English is so aesthetically displeasing, when American actors are lauded when they assume accents for their roles (see Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk, Will Smith in Concussion). Must Chinese actors speak Mandarin for their films to be considered legitimate? Indeed, would Ang Lee’s have been filmed in English, would it have been considered tacky, and surely not arthouse? Where Sword of Destiny lacks the exquisite subtleties of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it does well to bring such politics of representation to the fore, packaged in a way that is palatable for both Western and Chinese audiences.
Review score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is available to stream on Netflix Australia.