Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Superbit

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Superbit (2000)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Cheng Pei Pei , Sihung Lung, Zhang Zi Yi, Chang Chen

Not since Bruce Lee’s "Enter The Dragon" has a Martial Arts film seen as much notoriety as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Sadly the time was not right for the legendary Bruce Lee in the 70s and his films never managed to break into the mainstream. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was the right film at the right time and swept an entire nation off its feet. I find it incredible that people who have never had a good word for Martial Arts films suddenly turn into self-proclaimed genre fans after seeing this particular film. The recent DVD release of the film through Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment was good but failed to fully please fans, due to a mediocre print and the liberal use of edge-enhancement. Now, the studio is sending "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" into the race as one of the first "Superbit" releases, and we eagerly took a look.

For countless years, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) has practiced and studied the Wudan, a form of Martial Arts known only by an elite group of warriors. For countless years he has also chased Jade Fox, an assassin who has killed his master. But the time has come for the master warrior to settle down. He plans to give up his warrior life and as a symbol for his commitment hands over his sword to his lifelong love Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who he wants to share his life with, to deliver it to a common friend. But the following night, the sword is stolen by a mysterious cloaked intruder who strangely is also knowledgeable in the Wudan, and flees despite Shu Lien’s attempts to stop the thief.

Having had a glimpse at the thief however, Shu Lien is certain she knows the thief and keeps an eye on the suspect, a young aristocrat girl, trying to escape her arranged marriage. As Li Mu Bai arrives on the scene as well, the two decide to find out how the girl has been able to learn Wudan Martial Arts, suspecting the inevitable. Their nemesis Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei) has long been a teacher to the young girl, making her a powerful, but unpolished warrior. What follows is a battle of will and skills, while Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien try to learn to commit to their love.

Although "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a rather formulaic in its premise, characters and the storyline itself, its delivery is not. Director Ang Lee, who is respected for his intelligent, literate and lyrical films, manages even in an action picture like this to bring in a Western sensibility that is often lacking from these films. Breaking with traditional rules of Martial Arts and Swordfighting films, he created a movie that is more engrossing and character-driven than many of its counterparts. Where many traditional genre films are convoluted and require significant background knowledge, the narrative of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has been simplified and streamlined despite that fact that it is based on a series of Chinese novels, in order to make the film more easily accessible to Western audiences. The result has paid off – obviously. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is without a doubt the most successful Martial Arts film ever released in the US and the fact that viewers can easily follow and understand the story is an integral part of that, although many of the viewers will not understand the importance of the virtues on display or the actual scope of the Jade Fox character that far transcends this film, and which makes her comment "Poison is an eight year old girl…" so much more significant.

Cinematographer Peter Pau is once again pulling all the stops in this movie. The undisputed visual master of all Martial Arts films once again manages to create a magnetic look for the story. Beautiful sceneries and vistas are captured in elaborate tracking shots, adding scope and depth to the images we see. Yuen Wo Ping lent his incredible talents to the production as the stunt choreographer, making the fighting scenes – or even more so the pursuit scenes – absolute highlights of the movie that syncopate the film in regular intervals.

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment’s "Superbit" releases are targeted at the high-end video- and audiophiles. It is a presentation of the movie itself without bells and whistles. Since no room on the disc is used for bonus materials, every bit of data is allocated for the video and the audio presentation of the film itself. But what difference does that really make? Read on…

The first thing that is apparent when viewing this "Superbit" version of the movie, is that Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has used the same film print as on the previous release. As a result, sadly the same blemishes and defects that plagued the previous release are still evident here. Going for a high-end presentation should have included a full clean-up pass of the film print in my opinion, as the continuous speckles and scratches are truly noticeable. However, that is about all that is wrong with this transfer. Upon a direct comparison with the previous release, the video does indeed show a much better level of detail. Fine textures are much better reproduced. The texture of the foliage during the bamboo fight scene for example is now beautifully rendered, basically showing almost every single leaf. What was sometimes slightly soft around the edges is now clearly delineated and defined. Especially in scenes in which the picture contains a lot of different textures and fine details, this improvement of the "Superbit" release is evident. The parade in the movie with its many extras and countless colorful costumes now brings out every fold and every seam, many of which were previously blurred slightly. What makes this presentation even more impressive is the fact that Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has decided to reduce the edge-enhancement that plagued the original transfer. Combined with the increased definition of the "Superbit" presentation however, the image now shows noticeably more detail and appears significantly sharper than the previous release. This is as good as video gets, hands down!

A word of heed though, these changes are evident in a direct comparison only and most likely, you won’t be able to notice them on small screens either. While clearly discernible, these improvements will not create the "Wow!" effect some may expect. The improvement comes in the subtle details. Like a <$DTS,DTS> track that typically manages to capture finer details of an acoustic texture and thus enhances the experience ever so slightly, the new video transfer does the same thing for video. Subtle, but noticeable indeed if you know where to look.

The "Superbit" release of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" now also contains a Mandarin audio track in the DTS format. As well as the <$5.1,5.1 channel> mix found on the previous release, as well as an array of subtitles. The <$5.1,5.1 channel> mix is wide and engaging, creating a very lively atmosphere. Especially some of the outdoor scenes are beautifully enhanced by the subtle, yet realistic use of the surround channels. Many times you hear the soft wind blowing from the rear, or leafs rustling in the breeze, making for a truly immersive viewing experience. The frequency response of the audio track is very wide with solid bass reproduction and very clean high ends. Dialogues are very well integrated and are never drowned out by the sound effects or Yo-Yo Ma’s hauntingly sad cello in the score. Action scenes have a very dynamic sound track with plenty of punch, as well as very rhythmic music, which makes good use of the dynamic range of the track.
The difference between the DTS and <$DD,Dolby digital> track lie once again in the detail, but they are indeed noticeable. The DTS track contains a better low end with more punch and a stronger bass extension, and especially the atmospheric ambient sounds that make up much of the film as part of the score and the general sound design are slightly better reproduced. As a whole, the DTS track simply sounds more spacious and transparent in parts than the Dolby Digital track.

The DVD does not contain any extras of any sort and its presentation is quite Spartan to be honest. Even the menu system on the "Superbit" discs is uniformly the same. There are no motion chapters, no animated menus, not even images from the film, which his a bit of a disappointment, but since the presentation of the film itself is utterly impressive, we won’t quibble about that.

The "Superbit" release of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is clearly targeted at the most discerning film fans who give the quality of the film the highest priority. Therefore it is not a release for everyone, but for those of us, who truly want the best, this "Superbit" release is the way to go. It is home cinema pleasure in its purest and most pristine form!