Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and
Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.
A straight-to-Netflix multinational English language collaboration that is the sequel to the highest-grossing foreign language film in American history, Sword of Destiny reunites star Michelle Yeoh with the action choreographer from the first film, Yuen Woo-ping. Belonging more rightly to the CGI-driven Chinese wuxias of the 2010s (and the cheaper ones at that: it’s more Reign of Assassins than than Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons) the digitally-aided filmic art house wuxias of the early 2000s, the new film is worlds apart from Ang Lee’s original, and that’s, as much as anything, the difference between Lee and Yuen. What made the first film truly great is the combination their two sensibilities: Lee’s character-based approach to personal drama, romantic relationships constricted by social rules reflected in carefully composed, controllingly symmetrical compositions added to Yuen’s gorgeous choreography, every movement of the actors and stunt performers motivated by an ideology of fighting, reflecting their personalities, their worldview (Chow’s patient precision, Cheng’s wild flailing, Zhang’s exuberant virtuosity, Yeoh’s passionate intellectuality).
Yuen’s choreography in the new film is no less lovely, but John Fusco’s screenplay doesn’t match the original one by James Shamus, Tsai Kuo Jung and Wang Hui-Ling in nuance or patience, and the cast isn’t nearly as deep. It’s a comic book spin-off of the original’s thick novel. That’s not to say that comic books are necessarily bad and this approach is probably more appropriate to the source material, the late 1930s-early 40s series of novels by Wang Dulu collectively known as the Crane-Iron Pentology, which have yet to be commercially translated into English (as far as I know) but have been adapted into a series of English language graphic novels. But every moment in the first film contains depths and resonances below the surface, something built not just in the screenplay, the choreography, the performances and the mise-en scène, but the very texture of the film itself. Sword of Destiny is a digital creation, everything about it feels smoothed down and fabricated, it lacks a felt history. Those digital landscapes and structures are often quite lovely, in fact this is among Yuen’s most purely pictorially striking films, but it’s all a surface, two-dimensional beauty. It would be uncharitable to say that it’s the difference between Zhang Ziyi’s beauty and Harry Shum Jr’s, but, well. . . .
Still, for all that, Sword of Destiny might have been pretty great. Fusco’s script depicts a world in collapse, the gangs of wuxia knights-errant that make up the jianghu (or the Games of Thronesish “Iron Way” in the English language formulation, though the Chinese word for the martial world actually means “rivers and lakes”) in the final stages of destroying themselves after generations of in-fighting, the direct result of a martial code that demands an unceasing cycle of revenge, demands of honor and duty that trump personal happiness or compassion. A number of new characters are introduced, some of which are quite interesting (a blind witch played by Eugenia Yuan in particular is a stunning creation), but the two relationships at its center are ultimately underserved. Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen are very good, she’s as soulful as ever and he gets a marvelous showcase fight on an icy lake at night with Roger Yuan and Harry Shum (his final battle with Jason Scott Lee is cool too, but its momentum is butchered by cross-cutting) and early scenes hint at an understanding of what has kept them apart (Yen has withdrawn from the world of attachment, but returns in Yeoh’s hour of need), but the resolution is glossed over. The younger couple is hampered by Shum, who mostly just seems lost (how much better Nicholas Tse, who at one time was going to play the role, would have been). He’s a young man with a mysterious past captured by a young woman with a mysterious past played by Natasha Liu Bordizzo (Silver Vase, the original novel is titled Iron Knight, Silver Vase). She’s solid, but lacks Zhang’s yearning and she and Shum have very little chemistry.
The young couple are connected by a mysterious swordswoman who should be Zhang Ziyi’s character from the first film, but when Zhang declined to appear, the script was changed to another character, which seems like a terrible idea. It would have been better to just cast a different actress in the role, and make more explicit the continuity between the films, the ways that the freedom celebrated in the finale of the first film, if expressed within the restrictive confines of the jianghu, ultimately becomes poisoned by endlessly futile blood feuds and revenge quests. In the end, the film even compromises the central nihilism it seems to be leading toward. And not in any kind of transcendently inexplicable way, as in the ending of the first film, but rather with the most simplistic kind of happy ending. What might have been a cosmic tragedy, and apocalyptic end to an age of doomed heroes, gets instead the bright dawn of happy heterosexual pairing-off, romances succeeding not for any real logic or feeling, but as an assertion or, more likely, a studio mandate.