Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Review

Forgive me for starting this review with a grumpy rant, but Martial Arthouse: what a total crock! It seems that just because Ang Lee started out making understated character driven “arthouse” films that when he makes something aimed at mainstream audiences, film critics are determined to assign extra importance to that work. Yes films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk have more depth in their characterisation than your average martial arts or comic book film, but Ang Lee still embraces the hokey archetypes of these genres with a distinct lack of pretention. The primary goal of these films is to entertain the masses, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is no more ambitious in its themes than Once Upon a Time in China, just as Hulk is no more internal than Batman Begins or Superman Returns, but were Tsui Hark, Bryan Singer, or Chris Nolan widely accused making mainstream/arthouse hybrids with those films? I think not.

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After meditating deeply within Wudang mountain to attain enlightenment, Li Mu Bai, a master of Wudang martial arts and legend within Jianghu society, realises his inability to cast away his love for lifelong friend Yu Shu Lien. Intending to resign from the Jianghu (martial arts) world, Mu Bai asks Shu Lien to give his infamous and priceless sword: The Green Destiny to their oldest and dearest employer. Deciding to stay at Sir Te’s residence until security for the sword is arranged, Shu Lien befriends another of Te’s guests: a young aristocratic girl named Yu Jiao Long, whose father is charged with control of security in the capital city of Beijing. She’s also due to be married off to a wealthy family and is deeply fascinated by the romantic image of Jianghu society and Shu Lien’s adventures within it.

One night a masked bandit sneaks into Te’s home and steals away the Green Destiny. Shu Lien duels with the thief briefly and realises this is Jiao Long, and she has mastered certain moves that come from Mu Bai’s school of martial arts. The reason for this is that Jiao Long has been secretly learning from a dastardly old bandit by the name of Jade Fox, who happened to kill Mu Bai’s master to obtain a manuscript of Wudang skills. The theft of the Green Destiny eventually brings Mu Bai into conflict with Jiao Long, upon which the aging master recognises Jiao long’s prodigious skills and aspires to make her his student. He also seeks to avenge his master’s death when he learns of Jade Fox’s involvement behind the scenes.

Ang Lee and James Schamus have referred to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as “Sense and Sensibility with fighting” which certainly hits the nail on the head as far as the film’s themes go. Crouching Tiger poignantly expands Lee’s favourite topic of romantic and familial repression in a way that is both lyrical and extremely dynamic. It’s an elegant love story and graceful, exciting action fantasy, and really Sony made a bold move back in 2000 in throwing millions of dollars behind a project that attempted to bridge the gap between the sensibilities of mainstream Chinese and American viewers. To Chinese audiences, the romantic elements are quite bold, as ordinarily in Asian cinema you wouldn’t have direct exclamations of love, whereas American audiences were wowed by the fantastical elements taken from the Wuxia Pan genre: the flying around on rooftops and fight sequences that seemed unencumbered from the laws of physics. These days you get 2 or 3 of these period “Wuxia” epics a year, and they really are starting to become rather derivative and routine, but back in 2000 this film really came out of nowhere and knocked the socks off American viewers, achieving a U.S box-office gross of over $100million, which is still a record for an Asian-language film that hasn’t come anywhere close to being broken.

The characterisation in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is complex and three-dimensional. The only real villain of the piece is Jade Fox, who is there to be boo and hissed at, but for the most part the narrative is driven by the nuanced conflicts within the lead character’s personalities. The most vital role in the film is that of Yu Jiao long, a bright, beautiful young woman who is bound by the heavy traditions and rituals of Chinese aristocracy, and just happens to be a secret prodigy in martial arts. Her hopes and aspirations of a care-free life is poured into this romantic notion of the Jianghu life as the ultimate, unfettered adventure. Shu Lien and Mu Bai ultimately destroy her illusions regarding that life, and when she realises there are just as many inhibiting customs within Jianghu she reacts like a rebellious teenager and acts up within fighter’s circles, causing mayhem and destruction – and lots of lighthearted fun. There’s also the creeping fear of knowing the limits of her abilities are considerably higher than the people who have influenced her life – until she runs into Li Mu Bai. Her actions are tempestuous, but wholly sympathetic given the clash between her untapped potential and the constrictions surrounding her.

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In many ways Jiao Long is a classic Ang Lee character, as her romantic feelings and personal aspirations come into conflict with her strong familial culture and duties. Li Mu Bai is equally torn between love and duty, although in his case it is self-imposed and it is the actions of Jiao Long and Jade Fox’s arrival on the scene that once again pulls Mu Bai away from Shu Lien and towards his duties as a Wudang master. Shu Lien is the “Elinor Dashwood” role, always bottling up her emotions and desire for Mu Bai to make a straightforward declaration of love, and also having to rein in an impetuous younger sister figure who mocks her repressed feelings to Mu Bai.

These are very intricate dynamics between the three leads, and ultimately what elevates Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon above your average martial arts film is the way these dynamics drive the action sequences. The most important fight of the film is the one-on-one between Jiao Long and Shu Lien at the end, and it’s really driven by the context. Jiao Long is brashly showing off her skills as if to demonstrate her readiness to become a power within Jianghu to an elder of the society – but she’s also challenging a woman who very much represents the conservative attitudes that a woman of Jiao’s class is supposed to express herself. The fight also has layered meanings to Shu Lien, Jiao Long is precociously flaunting all the feelings Shu Lien has bottled up over the years, but on the other hand Jiao Long represents Li Mu Bai’s desire to take a student and withdraw back into Taoist duty, away from romantic feelings. This is a really nuanced context for action here, and action director Yuen Woo Ping delivers a fight that expresses all these facets very well.

Yuen Woo Ping was exactly the right choice to bring the action sequences to life, no one designs wire-augmented fight scenes better than he does and you can really see the results up on the screen here, as his choreography brilliantly conveys the grace and power of the central characters. Although a little light on action for your typical Asian martial arts film, there are a number of really exciting and multi-faceted fight set pieces throughout, and Ang Lee also deserves credit for how well his style compliments Yuen Woo Ping’s work, and really how much of the more outlandish and operatic aspects of the kung fu genre he allows into this otherwise rather understated film. It all serves to alleviate from the drama and inject a healthy dose of fun into the story. There’s also that interesting angle you have when a director comes fresh to the action genre and can sometimes surprise you with a stylistic movement or technique you haven’t seen before. Ang Lee manages this in a couple of sequences - most notably the Teahouse fight, which is probably the fight which features the most obvious homage to the genres Lee grew up watching.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a marvellous piece of filmmaking, it feels just right on pretty much every level of the production. Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh are perfect in their roles as hesitant lovers - although my opinion on this is perhaps tainted by the fact I can’t pick up on their dodgy Mandarin accents - and Chow Yun Fat acquits himself well in the action department, despite his physical size and limited experience in kung fu roles. Zhang Ziyi became an American star off the back of her performance of Jiao Long, and it was thoroughly deserved. There are strong supporting roles from Chang Chen and Cheng Pei Pei. Pei Pei’s inclusion in the cast adds a little iconic weight by having three generations of action heroines in the cast. Peter Pau and Tan Dun’s work as cinematographer and composer is also exceptional. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an exquisitely beautiful film, and the cello solos feel like one long lamentation of the spirit. The film wouldn’t have anywhere near the same impact without them.

Even though Western audiences have now been heavily exposed to Asian cinema and its various genres and iconographies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains an unassailable hit in America. It has become a true classic, and one of the first films fans turn to when asked for a good introduction to the martial arts genre. You can go wrong with it; spectacular action, deep and resounding drama... what’s not to love?

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Presentation

This 1080p transfer maintains the film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and I have to say Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is looking pretty darn good on Blu-ray. This is a no-frills transfer; it doesn’t try to turn the film into a reference point for High-Definition and focuses on producing a clean but filmic feel. With that said, this really isn’t a grainy transfer - it rarely fluctuates beyond flitting between a light to moderate layer, and there are no obvious signs of Digital Noise Reduction being applied, nor could I spot any clear edge enhancements as well, the image feels completely un-tampered and the print itself is remarkably clean. Detail can be a little inconsistent, for the vast majority of the screen time the image is detailed but not pin sharp. It has clarity and a solid level of fine detail, but wide shots in the first hour of the film do have a tendency to look soft – in particular the two wide shots that open the film, this could very well be down to the lenses used at the time, or a fading of the print, because in the final hour wide shots tend to look more detailed and in keeping with the detail we see in mid to close range shots.

Elsewhere the image is nicely refined; the colours have not been boosted to a bright vivid display, instead maintaining a very naturalistic, filmic look. There are a number of lavishly colourful scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which still look really sumptuous on this disc. Skin tones also look quite subtle and natural, there is a slight digital sheen to skin in some scenes, but as with the detail this is something that seems improved in the second half. Brightness and Contrast levels are a really weird one, as most of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is either shot in moonlight or around dusk or dawn, so even the daytime sequences have that faded, shadowy look. This gives the impression that the transfer is too dark, but when we hit that desert flashback you do get hit by how vivid the image becomes. I’d say the brightness levels are just about right on this disc, contrast is just a fraction high so blacks look a little crushed in a couple of scenes, while whites tend to be a little more muted, but the shadow detail is really excellent, absolutely no detail is lost to those night time fight sequences. Compression on this AVC encoded BD-50 disc averages out to a high 35.20Mbps, and is very good given the amount of dark shadows and earthy tones that are present in the picture. There are only tiny smatterings of noise in the darker regions of the image here or some very vague banding there, it’s so minute that I doubt many people will be aware of it during a regular viewing – which again is impressive given this is an action film with lots of blurry motion.

Sony received a lot of flak for their SuperBit DVD release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as it didn’t really offer much of a leap in quality over the standard edition. I can’t see there being any complaints about their effort this time round, the film looks more cinematic than ever. I am pleasantly surprised by this presentation.

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The Chinese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio option does a great job of bringing the original Mandarin audio to life, those bass drums in the fight sequences are deep and resounding and the dynamics of the audio are excellent. Dialogue is crisp and clear, but a hint of harshness and tearing in louder exchanges shoes the film’s age a little. The soundstage is used pretty expressively and although rears aren’t used a tremendous amount, it accurately reflects the film’s original surround presentation. In comparison the English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 dub sounds a little restrained and the dialogue also has some tearing issues. Also provided are Czech and Hungarian dubs in DD5.1 and finally Polish & Russian voiceover translation tracks in DD5.1.

Optional subtitles are provided in English and a plethora of other languages that are listed in the info column on the left – which brings me to the big fan controversy of the various DVD releases of this film. Basically, there have been two translations for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on DVD: The subtitles that were on the initial batches of the R2UK and 2nd batch of the R3HK DVD had a translation that differed slightly from the theatrical subs, this is the translation many fans refer to as the “dumbed down subs”. The R1 SuperBit, initial batch of the R3HK, and later batches of the R2UK and R3HK releases have subtitles that appear to match the theatrical showings, this is the translation fans refer to as “the poetic subs”.

What many fans won’t want to hear is that the subtitles on this BD release use the “dumbed down” translation, and I’m sure it will be receiving criticism for this. But the thing is, these do not appear to be dumbed down subtitles at all, in fact they appear to reflect what is being said on screen pretty accurately. From what I’ve been able to gather, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was written in English by James Schamus (and probably Ang Lee) then revised and translated into Mandarin by Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung. The “poetic” - or theatrical - subtitles have been transcribed from the original English script, but the dialogue on screen is a Mandarin translation of this script, which obviously isn’t going to match word for word. Eagle eyed fans who have some rudimentary understanding of Mandarin have pointed out that there are a few points in the film when the theatrical subs do not offer a literal translation of what’s being said, or simply skip what’s being said on screen at all (usually only background dialogue).

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Extras

Sadly this release does have a weak link, we’re only given the two featurettes and audio commentary with Ang Lee and James Schamus that were present on the DVD release. Sony haven’t even included the music video to A Love Before Time so Blu-ray fans could drool over Coco Lee! Here’s the rundown:

Commentary with Ang Lee and James Schamus: A reserved but informative and generally very warm commentary track, Schamus and Lee are clearly a very amiable duo and they rarely stop talking throughout the film. Optional English subtitles are provided for this track.

A Conversation with Michelle Yeoh (13m:50s): Michelle’s always a great interviewee, she talks at length about working with Ang Lee and Chow Yun Fat, and just various aspects of the production, the film’s themes, and the increased acting technique she had to bring to the table.

Unleashing the Dragon (20m:47s): Your standard Making Of featurette, but one that’s long enough to provide a wide variety of info on all aspects of the production, although sadly we don’t get any input from peter Pau or Yuen Woo Ping. Make sure you don’t skip to the menu when the credits roll around the 16m:50s mark, as a 2nd featurette starts up with Tan Dan and Yo-Yo Ma talking about the film’s soundtrack.

Photo Gallery (06m:44s): This one is self-explanatory, it’s the photo gallery from the old DVD.

All features are taken from the DVD release and are presented in standard definition at non-anamorphic 4:3, with optional English subtitles (except for the dialogue-free photo gallery).

Overall

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may not even be a decade old now, but it has already cemented itself as one of the great classics of the martial arts fantasy genre. There may no new extra features on this Blu-ray release, but DVD owners can now banish their old discs forever, as Sony have done an excellent job in bringing the film over to HD. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon now looks better than ever.

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Film
9 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

9

out of 10

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