Directed by Yuen Wo-Ping, the action director from the original film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sword of Destiny stuns with its dry visuals and falls flat with its story line.
A star studded cast graced the screen, and a pleasant return was staged by Michelle Yeoh. There were mentions of Li Mu-bai, but rather than Chow Yun-fat, Donnie Yen plays the character Silent Wolf. Asian American stars, Harry Shum Jr. and Jason Lee Scott, also joined the diverse group of players in the Netflix original.
Unlike its predecessor, the film is covered in a richly yellow hue, but it lacks the stunning verdant references to the martial arts films of King Hu of the bamboo forest. What the film does not lack are the training scenes, at times cringe-worthy romance between the two younger characters, Tiefang and Snow, and a flurry of digitalized martial arts fights between the evil group led by Hades Dai (Scott). While the fight scenes were well choreographed, they also seemed like a live action version of my favorite childhood pastime, Street Fighter. Villains and heroes clash and smash through brick towers, and land on some very phallic looking poles while fighting over a sword. While the story and the main reason for fighting is predicated on the sword due to the Crane Iron novels by Wang Dulu, the execution of such a story went heavy handed on the action and hardly touched on the nuances of the martial world of the Rivers and Lakes (Jiang Hu).
These nuances are precisely what Ang Lee’s rendition of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did so well. Aside from revealing the intricacies of the martial world, Lee’s film rendered a significant issue in the film itself, language in the Sinophone world (See Shu-mei Shih’s Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific). In Yuen’s feature, however, the only revelation about language is perhaps the attempt to render the story into English. The Chinese version is dubbed in standard Mandarin despite the cast having different backgrounds and therefore different Chinese languages. It’s emphasis on English may be due to the fact that some of the cast do not speak Chinese, and that is all fair and well. The problem, however, is that much of the significant implications and contributions from Lee’s initial step into the martial arts genre are erased. What is favored then is a Orientialized world of beautiful costumes and a lack of depth and critique. If anything, the only possible contribution that this work could make is through its Anglophone modes of expression. Even then, it does not escape from its exoticized imagination.
One irony that stands out is that Sword of Destiny seems to be precisely what Lee’s version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon mocks. From the names like, Silver Dart Shi and Flying Blade, and the styles they use, such as the iron sleeves, these tropes are mocked in the first film. Take the tavern scene where Zhang Ziyi’s character wreaks havoc on aggressors wielding iron fists and strange darts. Rather than parodying these stereotypes, Yuen’s film seems to celebrate them reinforcing such tokens of the martial arts world.
With the ambivalent ending of Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a sequel would seem to be the most apt response on the part of movie producers. It is partially this shadow of Lee’s film that makes it difficult to enjoy Yuen’s film. That being said, Sword of Destiny on its own as a martial arts film also fails to perform with its flat caricatures, predictable story line, over-determined action scenes, and disappointing visuals.