It is generally assumed that we are all subject to law regardless where we live and the system under which we live. As the recent film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny demonstrates, these laws do not necessarily have to be codified to be extremely powerful influences culturally or personally. Indeed, when individuals elect to join these types of informal legal systems their impacts can be profound.
Sword of Destiny is a sequel to the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film and follows the lives of several integral characters 16 years on, particularly Yu Shu Lien. The film is set in Qianlong China, at a time when there is an emperor but also a system of powerful clans. At the beginning of the film, Shu Lien journeys from her secluded home to the house of Sir Te’s clan. This is not a journey she undertakes happily – Shu Lien travels to revisit her old clan and surrogate family for the funeral of Sir Te, the leader of the clan and her father figure. Sir Te’s death is well-known and there is a sense of outrage when the carriage conveying Shu Lien to the house is attacked by the West Lotus clan, a rival family, while she is traveling to the funeral. This attack is unlawful according the generally accepted laws of conduct and is particularly egregious since she is traveling to pay her respects to the dead.
It quickly becomes clear to Shu Lien and Sir Te’s son that Hades Dai, the notorious head of the West Lotus clan, has begun a campaign against the house in order to steal the fabled Green Destiny sword and use it for the destruction of his enemies. As a response, Sir Te’s son sends out a kingdom-wide call for those who follow the Iron Way to come to his aid in defense of the house and the sword.
The Iron Way is a core of values and martial arts training that sets followers and practitioners apart from others and binds them together in an unwritten law of solidarity. The Iron Way requires discipline, hard work, dedication to fellow adherents, and is an overall value system. The Iron Way represents an unwritten code that binds complete strangers from disparate geographical areas and philosophies. This is evident in the results of the call, which attracts men and women followers from across the kingdom. It is clear that there are differences in personality and beliefs between the followers of the Iron Way and yet these are secondary to their shared adherence and dedication to the Iron Way itself.
At the same time, a sub-plot emerges between Snow Vase and Wei Fang, two teenagers. Snow Vase is a new recruit to the clan, who seeks to follow the Iron Way and has received extensive martial training in it in the past, although she needs to better understand the mental aspects of it to become a master. Wei Fang was a member of the West Lotus clan until he was captured while trying to steal the Green Destiny sword. In captivity, he befriends Snow Vase, who tells him the story of his true identity as the son of a renegade former member of the Iron Way who was killed by Hades Dai. The same woman raised Snow Vase as her own, training her in the Iron Way and making her understand the need for adherence to it even though she had abandoned it.
Sensing an opportunity to take the Green Destiny sword and assert power, Hades Dai launches a raid on Sir Te’s house. During this raid, the tensions between members of the house are put aside in favour of adhering to the Iron Way and following its law in terms of ideology and martial skill. Indeed, after he saves her life, Snow Vase frees Wei Fang, who has agreed to fight for the Iron Way that had formed his mother and against the man who killed his mother.
Ultimately, the forces of the Iron Way are victorious, although at an extremely heavy price. Many of the warriors who answered the call for defenders lay dead, as do many who were training in the Iron Way. Absorbing the costs of protecting the Green Destiny sword and knowing that the potential for future violence imperils the sword and those protecting it, Shu Lien and her companion take Snow Vase, Wei Fang and the Green Destiny sword on a journey to a remote location where the sword can be kept safe.
There are many plots and subplots within the Sword of Destiny film. The overarching theme, however, is the adherence of multiple characters in many diverse situations to the Iron Way and the potential that the Iron Way has to change the lives and identities of those who follow it. Throughout the film, the Iron Way is portrayed as an unwritten yet extremely powerful set of laws and rules that controls and shapes adherents in a way that even the laws of the state cannot.
As the audience observes, the Iron Way governs the actions of Shu Lien even years after she has retired from active participation in its enforcement. Similarly, the Iron Way causes adherents from across the empire to come together to protect the clan of Sir Te although they share different philosophies and methodologies. The laws of the Iron Way bring these groups together and also require that they create a functioning group that operates according to the abilities of each member of society. In this society, there is a hierarchy of knowledge, training and technique that is bonded together by fidelity to the tenets of the Iron Way.
Additionally, the Iron Way serves as a guide for the two somewhat wayward teenagers. For Snow Vase, it was something that she was trained in and taught to respect although her teacher had fallen from the graces of the Iron Way herself. For Wei Fang, the Iron Way was something in which he had been trained as a young boy but then was taken from when he was claimed by Hades Dai. It was only when he was imprisoned at Sir Te’s house that he began to appreciate the justness of the laws exercised under the color of the Iron Way. His adherence to the Iron Way was solidified when he learned of its link to his identity.
Overall, Sword of Destiny highlights the place of informal, unwritten law as a means of crafting identity, structure, a code of conduct and respect, and allowing those who are involved with it to join law in a way that is very different than being subject to hard laws.