Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Film of Mediocrity – Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

Michelle Yeoh (centre) in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.

I was never as big a fan of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) as everyone else was (and that includes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, as well as the film’s director, Ang Lee). I appreciate it for introducing the majority of Western moviegoers to the wuxia genre, and doing so in a way that was palatable to our sense of aesthetics and storytelling while still remaining (mostly) true to the original form. But compared to classic examples like the Shaw Bros’ The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and more highly-evolved entries that would follow like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (2004), I found Lee’s film to be a laboured, overwrought affair whose action sequences (choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping) were like a microcosm of the whole picture: beautiful, but ephemeral and mostly empty.

Imagine the crushing sense of ennui that enveloped me, then, when it became clear that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, the Netflix-produced, American-Chinese follow up to Lee’s Oscar-winning original, was just the opposite: an undercooked knockoff with cheap CG effects, connected to the first film seemingly in name only. I won’t be one of those who condemn Sword of Destiny for not being as “brilliant” as its predecessor – I’m knocking it because it couldn’t even manage to be coherent on its own terms.

Ang Lee didn’t return to direct; in fact, Michelle Yeoh (reprising her role as Wudang swordswoman Yu Shu Lien) is the only familiar face, with Chow Yun-Fat’s Li Mu Bai having died in combat at the end of the original film and Zhang Ziyi’s Jen having thrown herself melodramatically off of a cliff. Sword of Destiny – which of course refers to Li Mu Bai’s sword, Green Destiny, now entrusted to his surviving lover Shu Lien – features very little in terms of recognizable talent, and has even proven performers like Yeoh looking disconnected, exhausted, and bored. This probably has something to do with the baffling choice to have the predominantly Han Chinese cast speak entirely in English, which serves to both stunt their delivery and eliminate what little credibility the film might have had within the wuxia canon. A Mandarin dub is available, but from a Western perspective, the reverse of the normal setup (Mandarin dialogue dubbed over in English) is unnatural and jarring, so it certainly doesn’t solve the problem. Viewers are left stranded along with the cast in a sea of mostly incomprehensible dialogue that’s barely connected to the action (and in many cases tries to sound philosophical and profound, with about as much eloquence as a fortune cookie).

Harry Shum, Jr. in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.

In almost any other case, you’d be able to say, “Well, at least the action scenes are good,” but Sword of Destiny is just as lazily constructed in motion as it is when it’s just two characters talking. This came as a bit of a blow, considering the great Yuen Woo-Ping returned not only as the film’s martial arts choreographer, but as the director. (I won’t blame the rest of the movie on the fact that they hired an action choreographer to tell their story; Yuen has been a competent director since the late 1970s and has helmed a few of my favourite martial arts movies, including Magnificent Butcher (1979), arguably Sammo Hung’s best effort, and the excellent 1993 folktale dust-up Iron Monkey.) Yuen’s ineffectual direction of Sword of Destiny’s dramatic material is one thing, but the film’s uninspired fight choreography is downright criminal. While the feather-footed wire work from the original Crouching Tiger is common here – an effect I never particularly cared for, except in the hands of a more stylish director like Zhang Yimou, who used it to great effect in films like Hero (2003) – it’s not explored or expanded upon, and it’s not used in any particularly interesting or creative ways. Characters simply hop around effortlessly from rooftop to rooftop as if they’re on the moon, and you’re expected to take that at face value, with no narrative explanation for how or why they’re doing it, and with no stylized cinematic context in which to process it as just a cool visual effect. When characters do finally engage in combat, the action slides comfortably into the same stereotypical niches that Yuen has spent his career trying to shatter – the choreography is predictable, the setpieces are unimaginative, the editing has no propulsion or energy, and the performers, while dedicated (especially Yeoh, and Donnie Yen, appearing as the Chow Yun-Fat replacement character), aren’t able to carry any emotion through from dialogue to action. It was almost impossible, even as a seasoned martial arts fan, to keep my eyes focused on anything that was happening. It’s easy to blame this on the film’s overuse of poorly-rendered CG effects, which are employed to achieve some of the more exaggerated moments, such as when Yen’s character hits the warlord Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) through the tiled roof of his pagoda – but in reality, the most significant problem is the film’s lack of connective tissue between drama and action. Wuxia films are often compared to musicals, in that the emotion of the characters becomes so heightened that it can no longer be expressed through dialogue alone, and must burst forth in the form of song (or highly-choreographed action). In Sword of Destiny, there is a clear disconnect between the talking scenes and the fighting scenes, and as such, neither is invested with any real measure of interest.

Wuxia films are known (even overseas) for their emphasis on visual artistry – such as last year’s gorgeous but almost content-free Hou Hsiao-Hsien epic, The Assassin – and Sword of Destiny does deliver some well-composed, even memorable cinematography. But lensman Newton Thomas Sigel, known mostly for his collaboration with Bryan Singer on his X-Men films, seems to be imitating the work of greater Asian artists, and not expressing his own unique style – the conclusion being, then, that he doesn’t have any. The film’s visuals are enough to arrest the eye, but won’t leave a lasting impression. And that’s the most honest assessment I can make of the film as a whole: it’s as uninspired as its name, with enough visual flair to hold your attention until the credits, but with no dramatic heft and not a single memorable frame on the reel. Consider it among Netflix’s bottom-barrel original projects, and unworthy of addition to the storied family of wuxia films it so brainlessly imitates.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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