Watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one senses director Ang Lee’s intense discomfort with the wuxia film, just as he often, in many other films, appears ill-suited for any genre that threatens to diverge too greatly from his prevailing interest in romances quashed by social strictures. The film’s strengths and weaknesses are intertwined: It’s gorgeous, but often tediously, prissily so. There are few moments that Lee doesn’t over-emphasize to an interminable degree, save for the too-fleeting action sequences, but this dilly-dallying also eventually leads to a heartbreaking catharsis, when the romantically constipated warriors at the narrative’s center yield to their long-simmering yearnings. Still, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a wuxia film for people unfamiliar with the term. Lee drains the genre of its passion and vitality, reveling in vague, stultifying “good taste.” No wonder it was so well received, while most martial-arts films linger in critical oblivion.
Directed by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping, the action choreographer on Lee’s film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny embraces, to a point, the genre with less inhibition than its predecessor. If Lee was overly beholden to the sort of pretty emotional sanitization that used to preordain his name being read aloud come Oscar-nomination time, Yuen is surprisingly and disappointingly preoccupied with aping American action epics, presumably for the sake of appealing to English-speaking audiences.
The villain of this sequel, Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), is supposed to remind us of Saruman from Lord of the Rings, what with his propensity for issuing menacing decrees from atop a tall tower, which the filmmaker covers with swishing, aggressively vertical Peter Jackson-ian tracking shots. The narrative’s collision of mentors and aspiring protégés, with their variously convoluted, competing, and intersecting revenge narratives, brings to mind the heroes’ journeys of past blockbusters such as The Princess Bride, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and The Mask of Zorro. Even the establishing shots scan as more American than Chinese in sensibility, reveling as they do in CGI-candy-sprinkled landscapes that suggest, in their frozen intricacy, blown-up versions of postage stamps that might be issued in remembrance of toy soldiers.
But there’s also quite a bit to enjoy about Sword of Destiny. The action sequences aren’t among the top of Yuen’s quite estimable tier, but they’re informed with a rough, inventive energy that was all but entirely absent from the first film. Punchlines are set up with intricate invention, and paid off with vicious zeal. A duel between two potential young lovers, Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and Wei-Fang (Harry Shum Jr.), cleverly pivots on a small joke from the first film. The warriors battle within a room of great many antiquities, continually knocking things over only to save them with an extended limb at the last minute. The rhythm of the scene has a submerged, balletic sexiness that harkens back to the courtships that often drove classic adventure narratives of many stripes, particularly wuxia films and American swashbucklers. A swordfight atop a frozen lake involves an ingenious element of cause and effect, contrasting the characters’ sliding across the ice with their ability to casually fly through the air, climaxing with a beautiful image of the fighters on the ice from the vantage point of the water below.
One also feels the weight of impact when these characters struggle with one another. The action sequences of the first film were so graceful, so feather-light, as to court dramatic irrelevance, resembling dance sequences that are fatally disconnected from the rest of the narrative. The swords in Sword of Destiny actually matter, drawing blood, severing limbs, and removing sympathetic characters from the existential equation with startling force and permanency. This blood shed is contrasted against cinematography that’s often achingly luscious, suggesting impressionist watercolors featuring tormented martial artists, regal buildings, and dilapidated ruins among carnage dotted battlefields.
Lending these diverting genre formalities heft are Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen, who are charged with re-approximating the forbidden romance that existed between the characters played by Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat in the first film. The actors hold the frames with commanding stillness, informing the film’s theme of gender warfare, which is also borrowed from the first installment, with glamorous melancholy. Sword of Destiny is ultimately a bauble that could use some of the first film’s aching, wire-thin emotional precision, but it has an appealingly inventive, unruly party streak running down its figurative back. Though one suspects that the ideal Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film probably tows a line somewhere between the first film’s self-conscious delicacy and the second’s need to offer action of all kinds to all potential audiences.