Oct 30, 2016
Oct 28, 2016
Oct 26, 2016
(by Emily Asher-Perrin tor.com 2-29-16)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has an important legacy in the film world. It was a surprise international hit, made on a small-scale budget with beautiful stunts and fight choreography, enhanced by a heartrending plot and a group of incredible actors. It is easily one of the most important foreign language films in western cinema history because it proved that western audiences would not automatically shy away from subtitled movies, which had been Hollywood gospel at the time.
So when I say that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny fails to live up to its predecessor in nearly every respect, it is with a very heavy heart indeed.
Directed by Yuen Woo-ping (who choreographed the fights for the first film), Sword of Destiny feels westernized in every sense of the word. For one, the film was shot in English. I gamely switched my Netflix over to Chinese with English subtitles, only to find that the actors’ mouths weren’t synching with the Mandarin dialogue. After the original film gained such respect with the subtitles intact, it seems painfully out of touch to simply film the whole sequel in English.
Then there’s location to consider. The first film was shot in China, but the sequel opted for the glorious backdrop of New Zealand. Problem is, nowhere in the world quite looks like New Zealand, and the country already sort of made its mark on the fantasy landscape by effectively becoming Middle-earth to the movie-going public. (The majority of their tourism is built on exactly that these days.) Before that, it was already pretty well-known for being ancient Greece in both the Xena and Hercules television shows. The scenery is recognizable enough to be distracting, and that’s without counting various other visual cues that only seem to play into it: for example, the villain’s evil tower HQ reads a lot like Isengard.
Crouching Tiger‘s trademark was the beautiful wirework stunts, making the characters seem to float on air from the ground to tree branches and rooftops alike. And while that unique wirework is still in play, it is also CGI half of the time as well. The change is too obvious when the wires aren’t being used, and it makes the film look less grounded, cheaper, and campier. Outside of that, the fight choreography is still gorgeous, but it’s a shame that these techniques couldn’t be reconciled into a more seamless film.
Also, there are a group of fighters in the film who literally read as Sif and the Warriors Three. I mean, exactly. There’s Thunder Fist, the sage one (Hogun); Turtle Ma, the drunken merry one (Volstagg); Flying Blade, the posh one who speaks in a British accent (Fandral); and Silver Dart Shi, the sole awesome lady (Sif). I understand that crews of fighting friends come with their own tropes, but when the Thor films are pretty current in the public consciousness, it might have been better to differentiate them a bit more thoughtfully.
Honestly, there are too many disparate elements at work in this story. At its core, it is a continuation of the previous film, bringing the audience back into the tragic tale of Shu Lien and her lost love Li Mu Bai, and answering the question of what became of Lo and Jen Yu, following her potentially fatal jump off the side of a mountain. But there are so many other threads to pull, and far too many new characters to make sense of the thing. The story is sloppily paced and relies almost entirely on the action sequences to drive a fairly complicated plot. There are about seven characters who shouldn’t even be there, and could honestly be relegated to an entirely different movie.
And all of this is too bad because the remnants of a wonderful film are still present in Sword of Destiny. Michelle Yeoh is perfection as always, and continues to play Yu Shu Lien with deadly poise and wisdom. Her relationship with Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) over the course of this film shows gives more opportunity to explore the dynamic of a female mentor with a female apprentice, something that western films rarely give any screen time to at all, regardless of genre. In fact, the relationships of all the women in this film are fascinating, and if the script had been willing to carve away some of the more tedious character arcs to showcase those relationships, the movie might have been much more engaging.
While Sword of Destiny was based on the final book in the Crane-Iron Series (Crouching Tiger was based on the penultimate book of the same series), the film comes off like an exercise from people who willfully forgot or ignored everything that made the first movie such a success. It was, at its heart, a personal story of love and loss, framed by elegant action. This film managed to muddy all of those aspects into a strange stew. And for Netflix to distribute this film while its busy trying to build its own brand is an awkward misstep to see them make. (Not that they haven’t made any others.) So if you want to be completist and watch this movie, enjoy, but put the first film out of your mind. They don’t mesh together, and a certain amount of cognitive dissonance might arise from trying to press these alternate universes together.
Or you could just watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon again. It’s a glorious today as it was sixteen years ago, like a perfectly aged wine.
Oct 22, 2016
Oct 18, 2016
Oct 7, 2016
(by Barney Higgins warhistoryonline.com 10-3-16)
Miyamoto Musashi was three hours late. This was his way. On the beach the tension in the air was palpable. Sasaki Kojiro paced up and down on the fine sand with his hands behind his back. His wrath was rising with the sun, and with every passing minute he felt the insult to his honor growing. The date was the 13th of April, 1612.
Kojiro was considered one of the greatest Samurai in Japan. He was famous throughout the land for his speed and precision, which was made even more remarkable by his preferred weapon. He wielded a huge no-dachi blade, a curved Japanese sword in the classic style, but with a blade over a meter in length. The size and weight of the no-dachi made it a brutal, unsubtle weapon, but Kojiro had perfected its use to a degree unheard of in all Japan.
As his skill had grown, he had won many duels, and by the time he waited on the beach at Ganryu Island he had secured a comfortable position as weapons master to the Daimyo of the Hosokawa clan. His fame had grown with his skill, and eventually, he came to the attention of Miyamoto Musashi.
Musashi was a Ronin, a master-less Samurai. He had killed his first opponent in single combat at the age of thirteen and had gone on to win duel after duel as he travelled Japan and honed his skills. In Japan at the time, it was not unusual to challenge others to duel, even to the death, for no other reason that to display one’s mastery. Musashi was no exception. His talent was so great that, by the age of thirty, he had sheathed his two katana, and made a point of dueling only with bokken – wooden practice swords – no matter what weapon his enemy chose to use.
Kojiro’s retinue consisted of body servants, friends, students, cooks, and a clutch of officials who had come to witness the event and report back to the daimyo. They had arrived by boat in the early morning, and the servants had raised a shade for the officials further up the beach. A small fire had been started, food and tea prepared, and all made ready for the great Samurai to meet his opponent. The duel had been arranged through an intermediary at Miyamoto’s request, and the date and time set by him.
Kojiro had arrived three hours early, and as dawn slowly broke and his servants busied themselves with setting up camp, he had sat in profound meditation some way away, mentally preparing himself for combat. He rose some time before his opponent was due to arrive and took a little tea, making polite conversation with the officials, and joking with his friends. His composure was sublime, and his retinue, students and hangers on had no doubt that he would make short work of his challenger.
Three hours later, however, the morning was wearing on into the afternoon, and Kojiro was no longer composed. He paced, he grumbled, he swore and snapped at his servants, and it was clear to those who watched him that his rage at his challenger’s insulting behavior was building to a dangerous degree. In an attempt to placate him, one of the officials had suggested that Musashi would not arrive, and had fled the duel in terror at the prospect of facing the great Kojiro, but Kojiro did not accept this. He knew Musashi’s reputation as a swordsman. This behavior could only be intended to insult.
In fact, Miyamoto was not far away. He sat cross-legged in a little fishing boat that bobbed gently on the tide in a small inlet to the south of the beach where the enraged Kojiro paced. The bottom of the boat was piled with curled wood shavings, as the sword master unhurriedly worked at a long piece of wood with his knife. Also occupying the boat was its owner, an elderly, wrinkled, sun-browned fisherman, who had been paid handsomely to put himself, his boat and his spare oar at Musashi’s service for the day.
This spare oar was now sitting on Musashi’s lap, and with his sharp knife, the Samurai had carefully spent the morning bringing a new shape out of it. It was long and had become gracefully curved and perfectly balanced: a bokken of the finest workmanship. Musashi watched the sun as he worked.
He was a strange looking person. He wore no finery, just a simple robe and sword belt. His feet were bare, and his eyes had a protruding, staring quality that was unnerving. His hair was tied into a simple, functional bun at the top of his head. There were several days growth of beard on his pale and bony face, and his skin was covered with many small, livid scars.
It was clear on close inspection that he had not washed for some time, and his plain robe bore many stains and discolored patches. Altogether he cut a most disreputable figure, very different from the ostentatious displays of wealth and arms favored by many Samurai of the time. The only part of his attire that seemed well cared for was the paired katana at his belt. The polished dark wood of their sheaths gleamed in the morning sun.
With a quiet word, Musashi asked the fisherman to take them round to the beach where Kojiro waited. The fisherman obeyed, and together they rowed out to sea a little, before turning back to approach the beach.
At first, Kojiro did not recognize his opponent. Musashi sat low and forward in the little boat, his weapons hidden, seeming deep in thought.
“It’s him!” cried one of the servants, who had run down to the water line. “Musashi comes to the duel!”
The blood drained from Kojiro’s face as Musashi slowly stood up in the boat. The insolence, it was unheard of. This was no way for a Samurai to behave! To arrive so late was bad enough, but to arrive like this… Unshaven, filthy, in dishevelled clothing and with no retinue but a beggarly old fisherman; Kojiro felt the insult to his honor most keenly, and the wrath that had been slowly building all morning boiled over. He trembled with rage and held out one hand to the sword bearer who rushed up to present him with his great no-dachi.
The huge sword flashed in the sun as Kojiro charged down the beach toward his opponent. He focused his anger to a fine point, which ran through his arms and hands and settled at the cruel tip of the blade. In his mind, where a moment ago there had been great anger, now there was silence. But what was this? Musashi leapt into the surf and dashed to the left, but he drew no blade; his only weapon was a wooden bokken, similar in size and reach to Kojiro’s sword. Kojiro faltered for a split second.
What could this mean? The arrogance of the man who would challenge the great Kojiro with a wooden practice sword was incomprehensible. He turned to follow Musashi and dived in with a great sweep of his blade. The insolent man ducked just in time to avoid the blow. The no-dachi swept only centimeters above his head. A little cloud of black hair floated in the still air.
Then Musashi was in underneath his guard. The bokken was rising, but the huge no-dachi was in the hands of a master, and Kojiro did not back away. He brought his sword whistling down upon his opponent… but Musashi was gone. He had stepped step to the right, and his bokken hit flesh. Kojiro’s breath went out of him, and his next blow went wild.
The wooden sword dealt him a stunning blow on the side of the head and in the moment that he staggered, his enemy’s weapon smashed into his left side with incredible force. He felt his ribs crack, followed by a terrible, sharp pain deep inside his chest. He couldn’t breathe, and the world swam before his eyes.
The officials, staff and servants watched in horror as Sasaki Kojiro toppled forward onto the sand. The engagement had been over in seconds, and the victorious Samurai was now bowing low to his downed opponent, then toward them. He watched them for a moment, poised, then began to retreat swiftly toward the boat. There was a ring of steel and a yell as a number of Kojiro’s friends, and students drew their swords and ran down the beach toward Musashi, but he was in the surf, he was in the boat, he was gone. His purpose on Ganryu island was fulfilled, but tears fell from his strange eyes as the old fisherman rowed them away.
Miyamoto Mushashi was victorious, but he had destroyed one of the greatest warriors in the land, and the pointlessness of the act hit him as hard as his own death blow had hit Kojiro. There was nothing gained by his victory, and everything lost. Like Mushashi’s bokken, Kojiro’s skill had been slowly carved out of the raw material of his life. Now he was gone, but his death had served no purpose.
Musashi continued to study and teach the art of swordsmanship throughout his life, but he never again killed an opponent in a duel.