Movie review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel is a Kung Fu Pander

Movie still of actress Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny.
Movie still of actress Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny. PHOTO: NETFLIX

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny (NC16)

100 minutes/Now showing on Netflix/2.5 stars

The story: Some years after the events of the first movie (2000), swordswoman Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) comes out of seclusion to protect the invincible sword, Green Destiny, after the death of its owner Sir Te leaves it vulnerable. Evil clan leader Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) sends acolyte Tie Fang (Glee's Harry Shum Jr) to steal the weapon, but he is stopped by Yu and friends Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) and Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo).

We always worried there would be some amount of catering to Western palates for the sequel to the 2000 Oscar-winning original, directed by Lee Ang.

Would the follow-up to that classic be a tragic Kung Fu Pander? Or would it have a little integrity?

The first movie was the highest-grossing non-English movie in the United States. The curse of success ties producers to replicating the recipe, or, worse, sweetening it to broaden its appeal in the West.

Sword Of Destiny is indeed a movie version of General Tso's Chicken, a Chinese dish made for the American market. Thankfully, like the dish, it's not offensively bad. It's a kid's meal - safe, but grown-ups will tire of it quickly.

In the director's chair is Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo Ping, best known as a fight and stunt coordinator for everyone from Tsui Hark (Once Upon A Time In China, 1991) to Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, 2004) to Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill Vol. 2, 2004).

The script for this work, like the first film, is adapted from a wuxia novel from Wang Dalu.

It's worth pointing out that the first Crouching Tiger movie was, like this picture, an East-West co-production. Director Lee Ang, who went to film school in New York, always intended it to be a fusion of Western arthouse and wuxia styles.

The update, coming as it does 15 years after original, does a Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It remakes the first movie instead of taking the story forward.

We have two new young faces (Harry Shum Jr. and Natasha Liu Bordizzo), and they even flirt-fight, in the manner of Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen in the first film. Donnie Yen as Silent Wolf is the new old flame to Michelle Yeoh's Yu Shu Lien, replacing Chow Yuen Fat's Li Mu Bai.

The new work carries over themes established in the 2000 movie, such as the debt of students to teachers and the place of women in feudal China.

What's been scrubbed out of the Netflix-distributed work is Lee's romanticism. That's been replaced with longer, louder fight scenes, each one blighted by cheap-looking digital effects. And those tricky Chinese names have been replaced with Native American-style monikers such as Snow Vase and Silent Wolf.

Finally, in a Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005) move, everyone speaks English now. It's done with some sensitivity to nuance and idiom, but you spend so long gawping at the audacity of it that you forget to follow the story.

johnlui@sph.com.sg