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. With that in mind, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is certainly an eagerly anticipated DVD release and I was eager to check it out when the disc finally arrived for review.
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.
Given the fact that this is a brand new film and that it has received so much acclaim, one expects only the best presentation of this movie on a DVD release. Unfortunately, Columbia TriStar Home Video is not able to completely satisfy in this department – something which sadly seems to turn into a continuous disappointment with all their Hong Kong film releases. The print used for the DVD shows quite a few speckles, scratches and blemishes. A clean-up pass would certainly have helped, bring out the entire glory of Peter Pau’s beautiful photography without such distractions. What’s worse, though, is the amount of edge enhancement applied to the transfer. Although not evident in many of the elaborate shots, as soon as image outlines contrast against solid background colors, like walls or the sky, ringing artifacts in the form of noticeable halos are clearly evident in the picture.
The color reproduction of the movie on the other hand is beautiful and the level of detail found in the image is stellar. In that respect, this is the best-looking DVD version of a Hong Kong film in the market to date, although avoidance of the problems mentioned above could have made this a truly stellar release. Blacks are absolutely solid, yet at the same time, picture always maintains a very good level of detail, even in dark shadows and the nighttime scenes. Colors are strong and very naturally rendered, making it a real beauty to behold. The compression is very well done and not the slightest compression artifacts are evident in the presentation.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" comes with its original 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Mandarin language track as well as an English dubbed language track, also in 5.1 Dolby Digital. For some unexplainable reason, the DVD defaults to the English language track, which is even more surprising as the film was presented in Mandarin even in theaters. So do yourself a favor, and switch to the original Mandarin language track before entirely destroying the experience with the inadequate dub.
The 5.1 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 disc contains a commentary track featuring director Ang Lee and producer James Shamus. The two are very comfortable and from the beginning there is a fairly light-hearted tone to it, which they manage to keep up through the entirety of the commentary track. The duo is able to fill in the viewers on a large number of background information about the making of the movie. From logistic problems, language barriers and other handicaps that accompanied the production, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is certainly nudging the genre in new directions as Ang Lee lays bare his thoughts and feelings about creating an romantic/dramatic martial arts action film. Given its success there can be n doubt that many other filmmakers will take his words and thoughts to heart to shape their future movies after it.
The disc also contains "Unleashing Dragons," a making of documentary that takes you on the set of the film itself. With many interviews and footage from the production, it is an entertaining and informative piece that is clearly made to sell the movie to audiences, but for a change on a fairly personal level rather than a series of bombastic clips from the film only. Although it covers much of the same ground as the commentary track, this 20-minute segment is quite entertaining.
A 15-minute interview with Michelle Yeoh is also part of the release, in which she offers a lot of information on the genre and this film in particular. She – as a performer in traditional and this nouveau martial arts film – is in the position to directly compare Ang Lee’s efforts to those of other directors and how he has managed to tackle the project with his unique style, adding to the genre as a result. Even for well-versed genre fans, this interview is an informative piece of footage that you shouldn’t miss.
An animated photo gallery with images from the film and the set, and filmographies round out this release, although it is surprising and disappointing that they are not only very incomplete, but also hardly informative, even leaving out principal cast member – mostly for their lack of American box office appeal I would suspect. Biographies for Peter Pau or Chen Pei Pei are sorely missing from the list for example.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a great film, although it is somewhat overrated to the extent that many people think it is entirely novel or original. To me – on a personal note – "Wing Chun" is still the better Michelle Yeoh movie, and in terms of its intriguing, dramatic and elaborate storyline, I prefer "Swordman II". Nonetheless, it is a great film with some spectacular stunt work and enchanting photography. With this DVD, Columbia TriStar certainly manages to please most fans of the movie, and especially the added features that offer a glimpse behind-the-scenes will help more people understand that Hong Kong filmmaking and storytelling is radically different from Hollywood templates – although no less formulaic at times.