Kaiju Shakedown: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel. After all, Alien, The Godfather, Infernal Affairs, Before Sunrise, and The Hustler were all stand-alone classics that spawned unlikely sequels. And there’s no reason a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel should be bad. Writer John Fusco isn’t going to win a Pulitzer anytime soon, but he’s responsible for the fast-paced and fun Jackie Chan–Jet Li vehicle Forbidden Kingdom, and for both Young Guns films. Director Yuen Woo-ping is one of the world’s best action choreographers. Composer Shigeru Umebayashi has worked with Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shot Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and almost every Bryan Singer film.
So why is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny such a giant mountain of snooze?
I watched it over the weekend and by the time the end credits rolled I couldn’t remember what I was doing. The only clue I had was that the clock read 3 p.m. one minute and then suddenly it said 4:30. That’s about the length of a movie, and when I checked my Netflix history, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny was marked “Recently Watched.” I tried to watch it again, this time filming myself with a webcam for proof. Again, 90 minutes of missing time, but when I reviewed the footage there I was, watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sequel of Snooze-osity. Even as I type this paragraph I’m already forgetting what this post is about; however there’s a piece of paper taped to my laptop that says, “Everything is fortune cookies.” Which means I must have watched CT, HD: SOD.
“Warring clans now vie for power over the martial world,” Michelle Yeoh says in what must be the most exhausted line in martial arts movie history. CT, HD: SOD uses a lot of voiceover—so much that a less generous viewer might suggest that a lot of this movie was cobbled together in the editing room. “There are warriors who once stood against this type of injustice,” she says when she finds out that some bad guys want to steal the Green Destiny sword that Chow Yun-fat wielded in the original movie. What no one points out is that the prop they’re using doesn’t actually look like the Green Destiny sword from the original movie, leading me to believe that it was already stolen once and its guardian, Sir Te, ordered a replacement from collectibleswords.com.
There’s a young girl (like Zhang Ziyi in the original, played here by media law student Natasha Liu Bordizzo in her first movie role) who falls in love with a young boy (played by Chang Chen in the original, played here by Harry Shum Jr. from Glee) and Michelle Yeoh says to the girl, who’s brash, “Do not just watch with your eyes. Listen with your mind.” About Harry Shum Jr. she says: “He roars, but I feel a gentle soul sleeps within.”
People talk about the honor of their father’s house, they seek revenge for the murder of their mothers, there are birthmarks shaped like screaming eagles, prophecies are proven, and at some point Michelle Yeoh intones: “Code, duty, honor. I believe there are things worth fighting for.”
There is hardly a shot, a character dynamic, or a plot point that we haven’t seen in a dozen other movies. If Ang Lee described the original as “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts” then the sequel is “Lord of the Rings with martial arts.” Not merely because it’s shot in New Zealand, with the production designer from the Lord of the Rings on board, but because the plot is about a powerful object (ring/sword) being pursued by a bad guy who lives in a tower (Sauron/Jason Scott Lee), while two young people devoted to each other (Sam & Frodo/Harry Shum Jr. & Natasha Liu Bordizzo) are protected by a mentor who imparts wisdom (Gandalf/Michelle Yeoh), and a powerful swordsman (Aragorn, son of Arathorn/Donnie Yen), and a fellowship of warriors (the Fellowship of the Ring / a bunch of actors who appear at minute 20 and are killed at minute 50).
Surprisingly, the film’s basic story is right out of the novel on which it’s based. Both CT, HD and CT, HD: SOD are adapted from Wang Dulu’s wuxia novels, in particular his Crane-Iron Pentalogy written between 1938 and 1942. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is number four, while SOD is number five, Iron Knight, Silver Vase. Harvey Weinstein wrote his very own Oscar acceptance speech for Deadline Hollywood, and without an orchestra to play him off, he thanks pretty much everyone involved in the production, while neglecting to mention the bit of legal chutzpah that brought this cinematic Ambien into existence.
Back in 2000, Ang Lee’s CT, HD came out, produced by Columbia Pictures. Their original license for Wang Dulu’s Crane-Iron Pentalogy was for five years, which they renewed with Wang Dulu’s son in 2003 (Wang, who was harshly victimized in the Cultural Revolution, died in 1977). From 2003 to 2006, a CT, HD prequel or sequel was on the backburner and numerous screenwriters were linked to the project, but Lee never committed. Four days after he won the Best Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, the Weinsteins announced that four months previously they had bought the rights to the Crane-Iron Pentalogy from Wang’s son, and were planning three prequels, a CT, HD sequel, and a stage adaptation. Cheekily, they said they wanted Ang Lee to direct. Columbia filed a lawsuit and the Weinsteins immediately sought an injunction barring Columbia from making any sequels or prequels. The case was heard in Saskatchewan, where Wang’s son lived, and revolved around the solidity of Columbia’s deal, which was made by phone and email, and the Weinstein’s deal, which was on paper.
I’m not sure what the resolution of the case was, but in 2013 the Weinsteins announced this sequel. It doesn’t matter that it’s shot in English. The original film was shot in terrible Mandarin that made it a laughingstock in China. It doesn’t matter that several of the main actors aren’t martial artists. There’s a history of actors like Leung Kar-yan and Moon Lee becoming famous in kung fu movies without knowing a lick of martial arts. What matters is how exhausted everyone looks. Donnie Yen appears to be ready for a nap, and Michelle Yeoh can hardly say “True skill is not a blazing flame” without suppressing a yawn. Even Yuen Woo-ping seems to have phoned it in.
In CT, HD each fight had something going on besides fighting. In the first fight, Michelle Yeoh was desperate to keep a masked Zhang Ziyi earthbound. The second fight was a four-hander with several plots getting teased beneath the surface, from a student-teacher betrayal, the re-engagement of two old enemies, and Chow Yun-fat trying to impart a little humility to Zhang Ziyi. The inn fight was a chance for a cornered Zhang Ziyi to finally unleash her skills in a fight she could win, gleefully lashing out at a bunch of thugs. The fight between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi pits age and cunning against youth and strength. In SOD, the first fight happens because you need to start a movie with a fight, the second fight happens because it’s a knock-off of the iconic opening fight from the original, and the third fight happens to introduce Donnie Yen. I couldn’t tell you why the lake fight happens because my notes just read “Lake fight = video game cut scene” and the final fight happens because one of the 22 credited producers pointed out that that’s how you end a martial arts movie. By the climax, the action has been reduced to interminable sequences of people banging their swords together and occasionally being ejaculated into the air like digital snowflakes.
“The prophecy is proven. Your teacher would be proud,” Michelle Yeoh says at the end of the movie although I’m not sure exactly what prophecy she’s talking about. But that’s okay because it’s mere seconds before she’s saying, “You have earned respect in your house, and much respect beyond,” and the movie’s over.
Who would like this movie? Small children will definitely like it because it’s in English and they probably haven’t seen Lord of the Rings or any of the other dozen movies that this flick cribs from. Also—bonus points—they might fall asleep. As for adult viewers, all I can do is coin a Michelle Yeoh aphorism of my very own: “Life is but a fleeting dream. There are better ways to waste your days than this.”
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2
… You can read the entire legal filing for the Columbia Pictures v. Wang Dulu’s son case online here.
And one of the biggest Michelle Yeoh fan sites has a history of the Crane-Iron Pentalogy, as well as a timeline of the journey the sequel took. It’s actually interesting, unlike the movie.
Oddly enough, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: SOD produced a novelization that sounds better than the movie itself.
… Speaking of remakes, Nikkatsu just announced that they’re relaunching their Roman Porno films. In 1971, Nikkatsu watched their youth and action films fail hard and decided to halt production on everything and launch a wave of sexploitation movies known as Roman Porno. Directors had total artistic freedom (mostly) as long as they stayed on budget, on schedule, and had the requisite number of sex scenes. The Roman Porno run lasted until VHS started eating into profits in the mid-’80s (the line ended in 1988), and there are close to 1000 of these movies out there, several of which were considered among the top 10 of the year and some have become modern classics.
Trapped in Lust
… Now Nikkatsu is rebooting their Roman Porno line with five new films by five new directors, which have to follow the same production limitations and sex scene rules as the originals. On board is Sion Sono (directing an “art” film), Hideo “The Ring” Nakata (a lesbian flick), Isao Yukisada (Crying Out Love in the Center of the World), Kazuya Shiraishi (The Devil’s Path) and Akihiko Shiota (director of both the art film Canary and the action flick Dororo).
… In addition, Nikkatsu is reporting that they’ll be releasing 80 classic Roman Porno titles on DVD. The first 16 titles are coming on April 2, with the rest following throughout the year.
… Wisekwai has picked his top 10 Thai films of 2015 and his list is worth reading. As Thailand has retreated from the international scene, its output reduced to either art films from Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Co. or comedies and romances made for the local market, it gets harder and harder to figure out which of the wave of new releases featuring dewy young stars is worth watching. Wisekwai watches them, and his top 10 list is a guide to movies that flew under the radar on the film fest circuit last year, including period zombie film The Black Death, indie gay romance The Blue Hour, and Wisit Sasanatieng’s ghost mystery, Senior.
… One of those films is Freelance (aka Heart Attack), which hasn’t had a big review yet, but Variety reporter Maggie Lee was recently raving about it on Facebook, so expect a review from her soon. Already nominated for a ton of industry awards in Thailand, it’s a romance about a freelance graphic designer who goes to a female doctor for a rash, but it’s so much more than that. A sprawling two-hour-and-10-minute look at the lives of freelance workers, it’s a parody of modern work where talented human beings toil insane hours for the privilege of being cogs in the “creative” machine.
… And here’s the trailer (which is instantly relatable if you’ve ever worked freelance before)
… The Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong is presenting an exhibit of martial arts movie posters from Ghana. If you’ve never feasted your eyes on Ghana’s deliriously cartoonish movie posters, you’re missing out. Looking like something a college student wired on raw caffeine might turn out for movies they’ve never seen but merely had described to them by a talking bird, these are a visual blast, boiling movies down to their essence and refracting them through a wobbly lens.
There’s a bigger gallery of the posters here.
… “He represented Gree for two years, and Gree didn’t die,” billionaire Dong Mingzhu, the head of Gree Electric, said in defense of Jackie Chan, who is on trial in the press for having the death touch when it comes to companies he represents. There was BaWang shampoo, which saw its profits plunge after Next Magazine claimed that it caused cancer (the court case is pending). There was Synear, which had to dump its dumplings after they were found to contain Staphylococcus aureus. There’s Mitsubishi, which had to recall 23,000 SUVs with faulty airbags. And the press is even going back to the 1990s to point out that Chan’s endorsement of Subor Electronics computers came only a few years before Subor split into four companies. And while Dong Mingzhu is defending Chan, she herself replaced him as a spokesman in 2014.
Grady Hendrix is a novelist and one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival. He writes on Asian film for Variety, Sight & Sound, and more.