Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

(2000) **** Pg-13
121 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Ang Lee. Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, Chang Chen, Lung Sihung (II).

/content/films/3805/1.jpgThere are two schools of thought when it comes to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Some believe Lee brought a distinct elegance to the wuxia genre of mythic, lyrical martial arts pictures; others scoff, dismissing Lee's effort as the work of an interloper with dubious credentials to make a wuxia picture. Count me and the American Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences among the former: the Taiwanese Lee brought the best of Western filmmaking (learned largely at NYU) to bear on Eastern kung fu cinema. The resulting romantic action-adventure is a breathtaking visual and emotional experience for the viewer that also won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2000.

In a story that Lee's longtime producer/co-screenwriter James Schamus dubbed “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts,” values clash: individuality strains against a repressive society and its sexist traditions, and duty wrangles with desire. These common Lee themes play naturally amid the folk-tale feel of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as noble warriors of both genders—Wudang fighter Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and Su Security head Miss Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh)—try to create a space for a long-delayed romantic involvement. Before Mu Bai can set aside his life as a warrior, he must take care of unfinished business: he owes revenge to master criminal Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), who long ago murdered his master, and he must make the meaningful gesture of giving away his legendary sword, the sweetly singing, master-crafted Green Destiny. When the Green Destiny is stolen by a masked warrior, Mu Bai and Shu Lien realize they have a new foe, the young disciple to Jade Fox.

In telling this 19th-century story centered in Beijing—but venturing out to misty mountains and bamboo forests—Schamus and co-screenwriters Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung work from a Wang Dulu novel circa 1940 (part of his Iron Crane Pentalogy). The social complications of the story largely owe to  Shu Lien's new acquaintance Yu Jen (Zhang Ziyi), an aristocratic girl locked into an arranged marriage though her heart belongs to the desert barbarian—Lo (Chang Chen), a.k.a. "Dark Cloud"—who once kidnapped her. Jen frets, “If only I could be free to live my own life, to choose who I love and love him in my own way. That’s real happiness.” It's not hard to figure out why Shu Lien identifies with her new, young friend. When the two women take up swords, it's not only a matter of justice. It's personal: they're fighting for the lives they want to live. In essence, it's a superhero movie, with flying heroes (wire fu enables flying fighters to skip over rooftops and water and dance among tree branches), exhilarating fight sequences by martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping (The Matrix), and struggles involving romances, personal morality and a secret identity. As one elder counsels, “When it comes to emotions, even great heroes can be idiots.”

Lee benefits from the magnetic star power of Chow and kung fu dynamo Yeoh, who ideally embody their roles; Chang and Zhang also shine (in some cases, judicious use of body doubles helps to enhance the illusion of martial arts prowess). The gorgeous visual design includes Oscar-winning art direction by Tim Yip (also responsible for the handsome period costumes) and Oscar-winning cinematography by Peter Pau. In true Ang Lee fashion, the scenery is striking and the feelings repressed. Few filmmakers have so consistently hammered home a singular theme, but it's one with which the soft-spoken filmmaker clearly identifies. Lee's The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility, Hulk, and Brokeback Mountain all bear out the same lesson Yu Shu Lien articulates in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: “Repressing your feelings will only make them stronger.”

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Bluray

Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Mandarin Dolby TrueHD 5.1; English Dolby TrueHD 5.

Street date: 7/26/2010

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony has at last reissued Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an individual Blu-ray disc and, in the process, adds a brand-new bonus feature. The image quality of the hi-def transfer is excellent: the picture appears to be slightly cropped, though the aspect ratio is correct. The picture retains a light grain for a filmic look, and color and texture are handsome. Though detail is strong, the overall impression is a bit flat. Audio options come in the form of strong Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mixes (Mandarin and English) that aren't likely ever to sound better than this: dialogue is clear, effects are punchy, and the surround immersion is solid. For those wondering, the subtitles on the new disc are the same as on the previous Blu-ray release (which differ from the original theatrical subtitles but apparently offer a more literal translation).

The new bonus feature is a commentary with cinematographer Peter Pau, who proves to be a talkative guide to the production's challenges and his collaboration with director Ang Lee to capture their vision on film. Pau keeps the track humming with plenty of technical detail, including assurances that CGI was applied only for wire removal, everything else being practically achieved before the camera.

A previously available commentary with director/producer Ang Lee and executive producer/co-screenwriter James Schamus finds the practiced pair covering all the bases about the film's origins, design and stunt work, thematic vision, narrative style, and production.

“A Conversation with Michelle Yeoh” (13:50, SD) is self-explanatory, as the actress proves what the filmmakers say elsewhere: that she was the actress most committed to the project. Yeoh discusses her take on the character and the story, character dynamics, and the taxing shooting of the fight sequences.

“Unleashing the Dragon”
(20:47, SD) is a nicely done, traditional making-of featurette. Behind-the-scenes set footage shares time with Lee, Yeoh, Schamus, Chow Yun Fat, composer Tan Dun, and cello soloist Yo-Yo Ma. Also included in the featurette's running time is a separate promo for the soundtrack with more from Dun and Ma.

The disc also includes a Photo Gallery and BD-Live accessibility. Don't miss adding this classic to your library in state-of-the-art hi-def!

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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