Some words on Chinese and Hong Kong martial arts movies…
Those of this writer’s generation or older might be shocked to hear that it’s been sixteen years since the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film that changed martial arts, popular and arthouse movies alike. This got me thinking that there would be a huge amount of younger or forgetful people out there that take for granted the quality of combat choreography in most action films these days, and are totally unaware of the source of that improvement as well as the world of fine and bizarre productions that make up that source due to its fad-like and almost fatal rise then decrease in popularity.
Traditionally Chinese/Hong Kong martial arts films came in two flavours, empty handed martial arts films and swordsplay movies. The former usually had a simple plot that revolved around a character, somehow disgraced by a superior/evil martial artist with a unique style, spurred on to train in a new style so that he could eventually confront and defeat said evil adversary; if not this then just some contemporary badass that needed to dish out justice on some neerdowells while defending the innocent. Either way, on an action level and comparatively speaking, these films were generally pretty grounded, only using FX assistance to enhance the abilities of the characters to a point where they only bent the laws of physics.
Swordsplay films on the other hand were generally adaptations of or heavily inspired by traditional Chinese Wuxia literature, Wuxia literally meaning Martial Hero but frequently translated simply as swordsman. In these books and movies stories could be impenetrable in their needless complexity, or be simple stories rendered impenetrable by near-abstract turn of events and character motivations. The proficient characters in these stories had supernatural abilities, which stretched to but didn’t stop at a fleetness of foot that culminated in a kind of flying skill, executed on set with copious amounts of wire rigging.
Stalwarts in Asian cinema from the get go but still meandering through the inevitable ebbs and flows of popularity, these two styles of martial arts films saw one of their greatest revolutions in the 1990s when directors with a new bag of western filmmaking techniques came onto the scene and started making films of a quality equivalent to their American and Japanese counterparts, even if they still had enough Hong Kong idiosyncrasies to not quite be palatable to a more mainstream international audience. Even so, undeniable genre classics such as Once Upon a Time in China, A Chinese Ghost Story and The Swordsman showed that there waslife in this old dog yet, and further, inspired the term martial-arthouse to better describe them.
It was in this climate that the American co-funded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon went into production, bringing with it a vast change in not only martial arts movies but cinema as a whole.
Hailing from a past of filmmaking that more included independent and costume dramas, director, Ang Lee, lent his sensibilities to the Wuxia genre, bringing a subtlety to a cinematic culture not usually known for such.
Infusing the film with soup-operatics that would please its domestic audience but presented with the kind of restraint usually reserved for a Bronte sister adaptation so as not to seem brash in other markets, then mixing in industry best wire assisted martial arts, which were then still new to the average westerner’s eyes, along with the lavish costumes and sets traditional to the genre, a final product was created that was as unique as it was pleasing and influential.
Coupled with The Matrix, Crouching Tiger opened the world’s eyes to the potential of martial arts cinema, leading the way in combat style execution for the next half a decade’s worth of action films as well as creating a wider interest in Asian cinema that saw many home entertainment distribution companies rise, putting out quality films in a lovingly restored fashion. Soon though the pool of choice and general interest waned due in some part to over exposure on their and Hollywood’s part, and as the 2000s rolled on, those same companies closed their doors as suddenly as they’d opened.
While this was happening out west, the Chinese/Hong Kong film industry, due to increased popularity, were being given increased budgets and international distribution deals, but rather than inspiring a slew of well considered, beautiful martial arts films, of which it produced just a handful, most notably Yimou Zhang’s Hero; rather it actually led to them including overblown CGFX in their productions and paying less and less attention to innovations in action choreography, and while this often made for some interesting looking and fun films, they aged decidedly quickly while simultaneously making traditional martial arts films seem old hat, slowly killing their popularity and rendering them near none-existent.
And that was that, the martial art movie’s bubble had burst, leaving a legacy of improved action set-pieces in western cinema and a prolonged advent of period war films out east. Sure, martial arts films have seen increased popularity in their native China since, in the guise of turn of the twentieth century based fare such as Ip Man and all its derivatives, but it’s not quite the same as it was, with a lesser volume that generally lacks that self-reliant, pioneering spirit it always had; and only in a few cases has the world looked up to take notice.
On a positive note, over the last year or so, Netflix have been acquiring traditional martial arts films, to many a fan’s pleasure, and recently won exclusive screening rights to The Weinstein Company funded sequel to Crouching Tiger, and it went on release last weekend… Huzzah!
The fabled Green Destiny sword is said to render its wielder unbeatable in battle, so seeking dominion over the martial world, the sinister Hades Dai plans to uncover its hidden location and claim it for his own, forcing legendary warrior, Yu Shu Lien, out of seclusion to defend the weapon, a task she doesn’t relish.
Based (chronologically) on the fourth book of Wang Dulu’s Crane-Iron series of Waxia romance novels, of which it shares its name, the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon also borrowed heavily from the other books in the series, a trait capitalised on by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny, by crafting a story from yet other events in the Crane–Iron series, which, at first, seems like it’s going to fall into that impenetrable plot trap. By Introducing numerous characters very quickly, many of whom could be harbouring secrets and hidden agendas, you get the horrible sense that you’re falling behind with the story.
You needn’t worry though, because come the second act everyone’s motivations become clear and you can just truck along with the film as it unfolds. And what a stunningly beautiful film it is, as beautiful as it’s predecessor in its own way, but don’t expect that film in subtlety or feel. Director Yuen Woo Ping, a filmmaker known slightly more for his stunt choreography skills than his directorial output, is a very different breed to Ang Lee, and as such, this films shares more in spirit to the pre-Crouching Tiger Swordsplay films of the 90s, which, though pleasing this reviewer, and, no doubt, martial arts film fans of a certain generation, might work against the film for a mainstream audience.
Aesthetically different from those 90s films in its skilful use of CG backdrops, colour palate manipulation and technologically derived camera movements, it is more noticeably similar in its theatrical lighting, fanciful wire-heavy choreography and broad acting.
To be sure, there is very little of true originally here, and to none-Chinese mainstream audience it might all seem rather hammy with that broad acting equating to even broader characters, but its all done in good fun, and more importantly, to its intended spirit.
All that being said, and in light of the fact that it seems as if I’m being apologetic for a bad film that I have a fondness for, though unoriginal, what it does it does very, very well. Yes we’ve seen this style of onscreen combat done numerous times, but that hardly detracts from its entertainment value. Though an elder man, Woo Ping has used a directorial style that is vibrant, pacey and would be a credit to any up and coming director, and as such has crafted a film that holds the attention with aplomb, dishing out plot revelations and combat in equal measure and at breakneck intervals.
Where the original had Hong Kong actor of the then moment, Chow Yun-Fat, The Sword of Destiny has Hong Kong actor of the now moment, Donny Yen, performing admirably and heading up an entirely new cast who add as much colour to the proceedings as the cinematographer and costume designer. The only cast member brought over from the original is the always reliable, class act, Michelle Yeoh.
The only other thing brought over from the original, in a spark of inspiration, is the haunting cello based score of Dun Tan and Yo-Yo Ma, which, like the performance of Yeoh, adds a gravity that the film would otherwise be without.
As a martial arts film fan since my teens, watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny took me back to a time of wonderment in my life which enhanced my already considerable enjoyment way beyond a point many of you readers will feel it deserves, and as such I think it will retain an ongoing fondness in my heart that I would greatly hope martial arts movie fans of my specific ilk will share; but on a more objective level, though initially a little confusing and unapologetically traditional in its spirit, which may indeed put some viewers off, it is otherwise an expertly executed, fun, colourful and pacey evenings entertainment, and a great introduction (to the uninitiated who see more to it) to the swordsplay sub-genre.