Sunday, April 12, 2020

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon & Sword of Destiny

I do not believe the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon played the Boston area at all; the Weinstein Company, Netflix, and Imax struggled to find the right one-week window and the logical place to show it (AMC Boston Common) was just not going to run something, even for a week, especially not with Deadpool resting comfortably on the big screen and The Mermaid happily satiating the audience that wanted a Chinese movie in 3D. But, when I started importing discs from Hong Kong, there was a 3D version of this one, so into an order and onto the shelf it went. And then sat there, because who's got the time until a pandemic hits?

It sat there a little longer because I realized that I was doing double features and only had the original on DVD, while Amazon had the 4K disc on sale for $15 (and, yeah, I know ordering from Amazon isn't great right now, but I'm weakly justifying it with the $150 or so in gift cards I'd wound up with as birthday gifts and work rewards) and put that off a couple days. It is, as you might expect, an amazing-looking disc. There are maybe only one or two moments that don't stand visual scrutiny now.

As for the sequel - well, kind of funny, I remember that one of the things it got mocked for was being shot in English, but the disc I got from Hong Kong had no English-language soundtrack! The options were Cantonese and Mandarin, with English subtitles available, which was a clear path to driving me kind of nuts because I'll often think the AV sync on my system is off even in the best of situations and try to fiddle with it. Also, my active-shutter 3D glasses ran out of charge right as the climax was starting, so I had to plug them in and finish the movie in the morning, when the sun was shining right in through the window at my TV.

Not how I usually like to do it, but, on the other hand, it's not like this ruined a masterpiece.

Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I'm not sure if I've seen this since its original release, which is what you might call an oversight, although it is fun to revisit it as someone closer in age to the older, more reserved characters than the young lovers. I suspect that this is the thing that solidifies it as a masterpiece; it benefits from that sort of perspective, revealing layers and multiple truths rather than ever feeling bound to one point of view.

Of course, even though it has those multiple perspectives, it's still somewhat telling that you never need flashbacks to understand where Chow Yun-Fat's Li Mu Bai and Michelle Yeoh's Yu Shu Lien are coming from; the way they look at each other, how they stand, and the precise tones of their voices as they reference past events says everything it needs to. Two decades later, director Ang Lee would make a whole movie around presenting a younger version of his star, but the technology wasn't there yet and wasn't needed; they could get a backstory out of saying just enough. We didn't need to see them fall in love quite like was necessary with Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen. It's interesting to note just how relatively little action the first half-hour or so of this movie contains; many films in the genre would insert a scene of Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien sparring to highlight their skills and playfully show their affection, but Lee is content to let them talk and not contradict how ready Li is to leave the martial world behind.

When the action does come, it's astonishing, and I suspect that very few people gave Lee the credit he deserves for that at the time, especially with action choreographer/director Yuen Woo-Ping growing in international fame after The Matrix. But for all that Yuen is clearly doing some career-best work, and benefitting from a Hollywood budget, the scale of it and the integration of the visual effects seems to be very much of a piece with Lee's later work. Between them, they make the gravity-defying action feel less like superpowers than just how people who have spent their life training might move, from the first moment someone runs up a wall like it's the most natural thing in the world to Master Li casually walking along the limbs of a swaying tree while the gifted student doesn't quite have the same ease.

The sequence that feels most striking on second view is the big fight between Shu Lien and Zhang's Yu Jen, even if it is the most conventional, literally grounded of all of the film's big action sequences. I don't think I quite understood how Jen drives Shu Lien from empathizing with how duty and honor and being a woman in a man's world hurts them to "you little fucking brat" and ready to beat some sense into her - and then being tremendously frustrated that Jen probably does have more raw talent than her experience can counter. There is great material after this - Chow Yun-Fat is quietly wonderful showing both how he loves Shu Lien but cannot leave what had kept them apart behind when presented with a truly exceptional potential student - but I'm not sure any is as directly powerful as those moments.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I've bemoaned how the business models of streaming platforms can swallow their original movies up and seemingly eliminate them from memory in the past, but in the cases like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, it may be for the best. This is a sequel to a masterpiece that nobody particularly wanted, especially once it had trouble getting off the ground, where every choice looks like a pragmatic business decision rather than an artistic one, with only one or two people from the first returning to connect the projects.

The only main character returning is Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who in the eighteen years since losing the love of her life has walked away from the world of martial arts, but returns to Peking for the memorial of Sir Te, who was like a father to her and with whom she and Li Mu Bai entrusted his sword, The Green Destiny. The sword's re-emergence has attracted the attention of Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), the leader of the White Lotus Clan who believes it will make him invincible. He dispatches disciple Wei-Fang (Harry Shum Jr.) to steal it, only to have him thwarted by Shu Lien and the mysterious young Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), with Wei-Fang captured. Shu Lien knows that this will not be Dai's last attempt, and sends out the call for more followers of the Iron Way to protect the Te compound. The first to answer is Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen Ji-Dan), a presumed-dead swordsman who shares a long history with Shu Lien.

There's history where Wei-Fang and Snow Vase are concerned as well, and while the screenplay by John Fusco is clearly trying to have the same sort of structure as the previous film, he and the other filmmakers never quite manages to make the past seem as strongly tethered to the present as Ang Lee and his team did; where the first film's talk of the past and even its flashbacks always showed a clear path to the film's present, this one has important things that happened years or decades ago but only recently became important again. It does not help that the villains are almost completely generic abstractions, never built up as particularly connected to the heroes or a threat to the wide world. It's barely even "martial world" rivalries, and there's a supernatural element that the first film worked hard to avoid despite its fantastical staging.

And though Yuen Woo-Ping returns as action director (collaborating with Tony Ling Chi-Wah and Yuen Shun-Yi) while also overseeing the entire production as director, he often seems to be only imitating his work in the first film - characters leap and fly in similar ways, but it never seems as light and natural as it did before, with more cases where movement doesn't seem to match motion and seams appear between the wire work, compositing, and digitally-created environments than was the case fifteen years earlier. Yuen and his crew can still choreograph a heck of a fight at times, and he's got a lot to work with even beyond legends Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen - Veronica Ngo is on-hand, and most members of the team Silent Wolf brings have just as many credits as stuntpeople as they do as actors. The film is at its best when Yuen and his cast have a little room to play and can exchange blows and swing swords in such a way that the effects work adds a little more punch.

Mostly, though, the film seems like a pale imitation of its predecessor. Yeoh returns and is professional as heck, displaying the same intelligence as Shu Lien but never showing the same kind of spark with Yen that she did with Chow Yun-Fat, even beyond how this is supposed to be a different relationship hampered by more than just their own fear. The international cast is nice, but there's not a Zhang Ziyi to be found among them, and the scenes most clearly meant to be striking on the big screen often look pasted together. It was even shot in English with an eye to the international market, a peculiarly calculating move that serves to distance it even more from its beloved source material.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I watched the Cantonese dub on a 3D Blu-ray imported from Hong Kong which does not actually include the original English soundtrack; perhaps the original English-language performances are better. The 3D conversion isn't bad, although I suspect that the film's Imax 3D screenings did not make its subsequent Netflix exclusivity feel quite like an injustice.)

Depending on how eager Netflix's algorithm is to dig this up, Sword of Destiny will likely remain an odd footnote that few remember exists even when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is mentioned. That's fine, because even those who noted that there could be more movies made (it was originally a series of five novels) were probably thinking of something more grandly ambitious than this bit of uninspired attempt to squeeze a little money out of a familiar name.

Also on EFilmCritic

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