WARNING: Spoilers for both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sword of Destiny follow.
"It is said that a swordman's name will last twenty years after his passing." Perhaps this is the defining line of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, which comes out sixteen years after the actual release of Ang Lee’s peerless original, and takes place eighteen years after its events. And while it’s far from a bad sequel, Sword of Destiny is both not far enough removed from its predecessor to escape its shadow, nor does it come soon enough afterward to warrant its inherent existence. All that said, it is a fine, fun, and surprising film — provided you take care of one thing first.
The original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a special place in the hearts of many, particularly those of Chinese/Chinese-American descent. While it was a sublime translation and distillation of the martial arts genre, and also a sweeping, heart-breaking romantic epic, it was also the rare Hollywood hit featuring Chinese dialogue, actors, and creators. Crouching Tiger is a particularly Chinese cultural touchstone and point of pride, which is why the decision to film Sword of Destiny with English dialect blows my mind. This isn’t a direct ding to screenwriter John Fusco, or to the actors who deliver their English dialogue against very, very Chinese world-building, but look: when a film’s settings, story backbone, and even background audio are all based on a specific culture and uses iconography literally from its language, it looks and feels strange to have people speaking in another. I tried watching Sword of Destiny for five minutes with the English; switching to Chinese, even if it meant that the actors’ mouths weren’t aligning with the words, made the viewing experience a thousand times better.
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Perhaps this was because of Sword of Destiny’s distributor, Netflix, but it’s a sore point that stands out because so many other things are actually done really, really well. Like in the original film, Yu Shu Lien (played by the inimitable Michelle Yeoh) is at the center of the story; she delivers the aforementioned swordsman’s name line, specifically in reference to Li Mu Bai (a missed Chow Yun Fat), whose death she still mourns. Breaking her long stretch of solitude, Shu Lien travels to Beijing for the funeral of Lord Te, whose house was the main setting for much of Crouching Tiger — and also the rumored hiding place of the Green Destiny sword.
This sets in motion the film’s chain of events. On her way to Beijing, Shu Lien’s attacked by the bloodthirsty West Lotus clan, and is even given a challenge by young Wei Fang (Harry Shum Jr.). There, a mysterious man in a hat helps her, only to flee from the scene after. She makes her way to the House of Te, where it’s revealed that the Green Destiny sword isn’t just there — it’s out in plain sight because the late Lord Te wanted to see it in his last days. Naturally, word gets out.
The Red Lotus clan’s leader Hades Dai, guided by a magical blind enchantress discovered by Wei Fang, decides to pursue the Green Destiny. Again by the enchantress’s word, Wei Fang is dispatched to steal the sword. (A choice snippet of dialogue: “Am I to storm the home of the Emperor’s brother?” “Send instead a single drop of rain.”) This all happens after a mysterious girl (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) enters the Red Lotus camp and claims to want to join them, before directly attacking Dai and, after being overpowered, fleeing. Perhaps shaken by that encounter, Dai seeks the Green Destiny’s power and total dominion over the martial arts world.
(A note about the enchantress: the effects in both films veer on unbelievable. Her “actual magic” powers take the story to a place it didn’t have to go.)
At Te’s funeral, Shu Lien encounters that same mysterious girl and, just as she did with Jen in the previous film, feels like something’s up. Later that evening, Wei Fang steals into the Te’s resident to snatch the sword — and is met by the mysterious girl. Their encounter ends with his capture, and the innocent-seeming girl, Xue Ping, finally introduces herself to Shu Lien and asks to become her student. (Another note: in the English, Xue Ping’s name is literally Snow Vase. Consider that.)
The lead-up to this point is slow, but things escalate quickly, and quite masterfully, afterward. The mystery man in a hat is revealed to be Meng Si Zhao (Donnie Yen), who was Shu Lien’s ignored betrothed in the first film — and by the opening events of this film, was presumed dead in a duel against West Lotus’s Dai. In fact, they’re not the only tacit couple being puppeted by the strings of fate; Xue Ping and Wei Fang have their own ties that bind, and their relationship (which is best explained in the film, not told here) is perhaps even more moving. Their parallel stories, born out of a cruel and sexist motive, make the addition of their characters not just worth it, but pivotal to everything that follows.
And after that particular revelation, the story becomes a true tale of betrayal, redemption, reconciliation, and death. The fight choreography is, as always, mesmerizing. (One should expect no less from veteran director Yuen Woo-ping.) Though the final battle is a little anticlimactic, the latter half of the film as a whole is satisfying; I came into Sword of Destiny wary, but left it feeling pretty good.
Which might be the biggest narrative failing of the film. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was both deeply sad and morally complicated, even with its “good” characters, and didn’t try to reconcile those two things. Sword of Destiny lays some similar groundwork down, but ultimately goes for the easier story. Which isn’t to say that what’s there isn’t compelling — only that after this go-round, perhaps it’s time to hide Green Destiny away for good.