Hong Kong Digital
is a recurring series of movie reviews by John Charles -- a film
reviewer for Video Watchdog magazine and the author of The Hong
With all of the critical raves afforded to the movie, I couldn't help but wonder if it really could be that impressive. Thankfully, it is and I can't wait to get it on DVD** and endlessly replay the amazing combat sequences! The camera follows the combatants over rooftops, through courtyards, across the tops of trees...you name it. The action and tracking shots are incredibly fluid and invigorating and I only noticed stunt doubles in a couple of shots. The use of digital wire removal allows the stars to do practically everything themselves with their faces in plain view. It's not like in DRAGON INN or FIRE DRAGON, where you have a non-martial artist like Brigitte Lin obscured by a hat or veil: you clearly see the leads performing these feats.
While Michelle Yeoh comes off predictably well, Chow Yun-fat and, especially, Zhang Ziyi are surprisingly convincing. You really buy that they are kung fu masters, which isn't always the case with the HK fare from the early 90s. Chow is a bit hemmed in by the classically stoic nature of his character but still does well and Yeoh handles her emotionally delicate moments impressively. However, I must agree with the overseas reviewers: this Zhang Ziyi's movie. She has third billing but her character (one of the feistiest heroines I've ever seen in this genre) is really the main focus. Zhang gets the most screentime and is extremely good. The overseas press constantly refers to her as "Little Gong Li" and, while I did see some resemblance once in a while, I think that the tag really only exists because she made her debut in Zhang Yimou's THE ROAD HOME. CROUCHING TIGER is only her second film but she looks poised for major stardom. Compared to the three leads, Cheng Pei-pei has a less interesting character but it was still nice to see her back in the genre (I looked at COME DRINK WITH ME the other day and her "Golden Swallow" characterization still holds up beautifully after 35 years).
When I talked with him in June, Peter Pau told me flat out that it was Ang Lee who deserved the credit for the quality of the martial arts sequences and not Yuen Woo-ping, whom he described as the most ill-prepared and disorganized action choreographer he had ever encountered (Pau also pulled no punches when he gave his thoughts on John Woo and Tsui Hark, both of whom he described as having their best days well behind them). In addition to the attributes listed above, another thing that impressed me about the action setpieces is the amount of coverage that was obtained and Lee deserves the credit for that.
The action in films that Yuen directed himself is quite impressive but in his later work, like IRON MONKEY and THE TAI-CHI MASTER with their heavy reliance on wirework, there are jumpcuts, awkward post-production acceleration of shots, or other cheats of that nature. Yuen obviously didn't (partially for reasons of time and money) get the amount of coverage that was obtained here and this is one of the things that makes the flying sequences so wonderful. The camera swoops, sways, and stays with the combatants for a longer period of time than you would normally expect. Still, I have to give Yuen the credit he is due: Chow and Zhang perform some intricate arm movements in medium shots and, given their lack of martial arts training, they do it very convincingly. It takes an experienced choreographer to pull that off.
Another plus is the stereo mix, with its variety of foley FX (instead of the same whoosh and thwack sounds repeated over and over). There are instances of the step printing process that Pau utilized in THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR but it is used more sparingly here. The wire removal looked seamless and the soundtrack (particularly during the duels) is exceptional (I must pick up the CD). The location work (deserts, fertile valleys, a mountaintop monastery) is gorgeous throughout.
Without giving anything away, the standout combat sequence finds Michelle Yeoh battling Zhang Ziyi in the second half. The latter has stolen Chow Yun-fat's sword, Green Destiny, which is the most powerful weapon in the martial world. While Michelle is the superior martial artist, Ziyi has the sword and Michelle goes through a series of different weapons (swords, spears, etc), having to continue fighting while each is gradually sliced to pieces in her hands. The sequence manages to be both gently humorous and quite exciting.
You've probably read about the plot in a number of reviews by now and I don't want to start including spoilers here. I will say that the storyline does an admirable job of adhering to the classic kung fu tenets. This approach meshes beautifully with the technical advances, making the entire film seem like both a respectful throwback and something entirely fresh.
The print screened was the Sony version that will be released here later this year, with the subtitles done in California by Titra. I don't know if they just duplicated the subs on the Asian prints but, even with my limited grasp of Mandarin, I noticed a fair amount of paraphrasing. The subs convey all the story points clearly, though I'm not in a position to say for certain how accurate they are (in a way that's probably good, as Chow and Yeoh's heavily-accented Mandarin isn't an issue for me). Pau mentioned that he and Lee disagreed over the way the prints should look: Lee wanted a brighter image, which he felt would more closely resemble classic Chinese paintings. The movie looks quite nice but I do see Pau's point. Contrasts and colours could be richer and a few shots look very grainy, flaws that would not be as prominent with darker contrasts. Still, this is a minor quibble. It will be interesting to see what look the video transfer adopts. The location work (including deserts, fertile valleys, and a mountaintop monastery) is gorgeous throughout.
As splendid as CTHD is, I can't agree with those who feel that this could be a breakthrough hit with mainstream Western moviegoers. The audience at the screening was about 99% white and, while they were respectful, there was still some very noticeable tittering when the names of some of the martial artists were mentioned. The classical nature of the narrative and unhurried pace would probably also hinder its acceptance (Thank God Miramax isn't distributing this - they'd cut it from 120m down to 90!) and most people here will probably find the ending disappointing or otherwise unsatisfying.
Looking back over these paragraphs, it sounds like I'm overselling the movie but it really is this good. See it as soon as you can but don't bother with crappy bootlegs; CROUCHING TIGER attains new heights in this genre and would be best experienced in a big theatre with a good sound system or, at the very least, on DVD (I hope Columbia Tristar does as nice a job with this one as they did with THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN).
Period martial arts films have always been my favorite form of Chinese cinema and, if CTHD inaugurates a revival, I'll love it even more.
*For those of you worried that Hollywood B-movies will be Pau's new vocation, he is heading back to HK to shoot Ann Hui's next movie.
**An industry friend tells me that, even though the theatrical release is still a few months away, Columbia Tristar Home Video has already started working on their CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON DVD. Ang Lee has recorded a commentary track and one of the producers is scheduled to do a second one soon. The company hopes to also have Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh together on a third track but nothing has been finalized yet.