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Issue #112 HOME E-mail: mail@dighkmovies.com BACK ISSUES June 17th, 2002

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
(2000; Sony Pictures Classics / Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia / Good Machine International / Edko Films / Zoom Hunt / China Film Co-Production Corp / Asian Union Film & Entertainment)

A Masterpiece
Highly Recommended
Very Good
Marginal Recommendation
Not Recommended
Definitely Not Recommended

Cantonese: Ngo fu chong lung
Mandarin: Wo hu cang long
English: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

In interviews, director Ang Lee has referred to his 19th Century wuxia pian (knightly chivalry film) as "chop suey" since it offers Western viewers an accessible simplification of the prototypical Chinese kung fu epic, leaving aside the convoluted, historical plotting that makes some of these productions heavy going. This is certainly true but, as is his custom in interviews, Lee sells his accomplishment short. While CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON does beautifully realize the cinematic possibilities that can exist via the combination of East and West, it is also impressively mounted, exciting, and genuinely moving, both a respectful throwback and an inspiring innovation.

After years of meditative training on Wudan Mountain, master swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) returns from the countryside with the intention of withdrawing from the martial world. To that end, he asks Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh Chu-kheng) to give his unmatched, 400 year-old sword, Green Destiny, to longtime friend Sir Te (EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN's Lung Si-hung, who passed away last month). Shortly after this is done, a masked thief steals the weapon, managing to elude both the Te guards and Shu Lien, in spite of the latter's superb martial arts. The robber is Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the teenage daughter of the Governor and a secret pupil of the villainous Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei, the queen of 60s kung fu cinema), who is masquerading as her governess. Although he now seeks to be a man of peace, Mu Bai searches for Jade Fox, who stole his clan's secret martial arts manual and killed his master some years before. Already possessing a rebellious spirit (and having carried on an affair with bandit chieftain Dark Cloud, played by HAPPY TOGETHER's Chang Chen), Jen has become an indomitable force now that she has all but mastered the Wudan techniques outlined in the manual. Mu Bai recognizes her potential and seeks to take on Jen as his student, but the girl is defiant, and there is still the matter of Jade Fox.

"SENSE AND SENSIBILITY with martial arts" is a tag often assigned to CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and the film does explore its dramatic conflicts with a refinement and nuance that goes against the grand emotions and unbridled melodrama characterizing the genre. This approach is quite a valid one given the major theme here of unrequited love (Shu Lien was betrothed to a comrade of Mu Bai and, when the former was killed in battle, she was for all intents and purposes widowed for life) in a time when codes of behavior required the stifling of emotions. In a role originally intended for Jet Li Lianjie, Chow Yun-fat is able to carry himself with a greater sense of dignity and bearing than Li has thus far displayed in his movies. That largely compensates for Chow's accented Mandarin and the fact that the martial arts sequences had to be reduced in order to accommodate the actor's lack of experience in this area. Another performer who struggled with the dialogue was Michelle Yeoh, and her intonation is even more problematic. However, for those who do not understand Mandarin, there is very little to fault in her performance. Yeoh had already demonstrated, in the otherwise woeful AH KAM, that she could be a persuasive dramatic actress but her work here is genuinely touching. Cheng Pei-pei does what she can as the rather colorless Jade Fox (the character's only real distinction is the way in which she rebels against the men who have used and oppressed her) but Zhang Ziyi is truly electrifying as her incredibly feisty and defiant pupil. For all of the immaturity she displays and the anguish she causes, Jen remains one of the most indelible and captivating female characters seen in years. The martial arts choreography was handled by veteran Yuen Woo-ping and the schedule and budget allowed for much more coverage than one commonly gets in these pictures. The camera follows the combatants over rooftops, through courtyards, across the tops of trees (and, in the case of the glorious bamboo forest scene, up the sides and on to the very branches) in long, unbroken shots. These sequences are incredibly fluid and the use of digital wire removal allows the stars to do much of it themselves with their faces in plain view, instead of stunt doubles obscured by a hat or veil. For all of the post-production trickery, though, the fact that non-martial artists Chow and Zhang manage to convince one of their characters' gifts should largely be credited to Yuen's efforts.

Cover art courtesy Columbia Tristar.

Michelle Yeoh. Image courtesy Columbia Tristar.

Zhang Ziyi. Image courtesy Columbia Tristar.

Chow Yun-Fat. Image courtesy Columbia Tristar.

Zhang Ziyi. Image courtesy Columbia Tristar.
Columbia Tristar #05990 (U.S. Label)

Sync Sound Mandarin (Dolby Digital 5.1), Dubbed English (Dolby Digital 5.1), and Dubbed French (Dolby Digital 2.0) Language Tracks

Optional Subtitles In English and French

English Closed Captioning

28 Chapters Illustrated In the Menu With Stills

Letterboxed (2.35:1)

Enhanced for 16:9 Displays

Coded for Region 1 Only

120 Minutes

Contains moderate martial arts violence and mild sexuality

DVD menu courtesy Columbia Tristar.

Argentina: ATP
Australia: M
Belgium: KT
British Columbia: 14A (Violence, Suggestive Scenes)
Canada (Video): PG
Chile: TE
Denmark: 11
Finland: K-11
France: U
Germany: 12
Great Britain: 12
Hong Kong: IIA
Ireland: 15
Netherlands: 12
Norway: 15
Nova Scotia: PG
Ontario: PG
Peru: PG
Singapore: PG [Passed With Cuts]
Spain: 7
Sweden: 11
Switzerland: 10
USA: PG-13 (Martial Arts Violence and Some Sexuality)


Shot in Super 35, the film is presented here at its intended 2.35:1 dimensions and Peter Pau Tak-hei's gorgeous, Oscar-winning cinematography is well-served. The transfer differs noticeably from the 35mm print I saw at a special industry screening in July 2000 (see issue #2 for more details). Pau introduced the showing with the caveat that he and Lee clashed over how the release prints should look, with the director preferring a brighter image that would more closely resemble classic Chinese paintings. The version viewed was prepared in this manner and, while certainly a valid artistic approach, it suffered from heavy grain at times and colors were not as striking as they could have been. The video transfer definitely leans toward Pau's preferences, featuring virtually no grain and extremely attractive hues. The night sequences, however, are a bit too dark and there are occasional speckles on the source material (the transfer was done before the movie hit U.S. theatres; if Columbia had known how well it would do, they doubtlessly would have been more diligent). The disc defaults to the original Mandarin track (5.1), and optional subtitles are available in English or French. There is also English closed captioning, a French track (2.0), and an English dub (5.1 or 2.0). The latter is handled respectfully --far more so than the horrid job done on Lee's EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN-- and is well above average, even though neither Chow nor Yeoh participated and the Eastern European accent given to Chang is very distracting. While the original obviously remains superior and is definitely the version that one should see first, the English variant is interesting in that it includes some details that were either dropped or simplified for Titra's English subtitles (the captioning replicates the subtitles, rather than the English script). For example, Zhang's character is referred to by her proper Mandarin name (Yu Jiaolong), as are some of the weapons. The first draft of the script was in English and it is possible that the dubbing team worked from that version but the track also has its own simplifications and paraphrasing, and the editing is occasionally sloppy (during a fight at an inn, background characters can still be heard speaking in Mandarin). As befitting the material, the stereo mix is not as aggressive or unrelenting as most Hollywood fare these days. However, both the high and low ranges are very satisfying (the percussion during the opening duel is especially invigorating) and Tan Dun's beautiful, Oscar-winning score envelopes the viewer, heightening the emotions on display. The layer change (1:20:11) is smoothly executed but, in an odd bit of programming, only one chapter is provided for an entire 20m flashback sequence.

Chow Yun-fat from UNLEASHING DRAGONS. Image courtesy Columbia Tristar.
There are a number of supplementary features, including the US Sony Pictures Classics trailer and Columbia's spot for overseas markets, abbreviated filmographies (which contain some errors), and a photo montage. Yeoh provides a very rewarding 14 minute talk, in which she eloquently discusses her character and the growth she experienced as an actress in a role that was both subtle and multi-dimensional. A Bravo "Making Of..." special called UNLEASHING DRAGONS (17 mins) includes sound bite interviews that do a fairly good job of providing background on the project but is of most interest for the behind-the-scenes glimpses of how the incredibly graceful wirework was accomplished.
(Incidentally, everyone in the doc perpetuates the myth that this is Chow's first martial arts picture, conveniently forgetting Yuen Woo-ping's THE POSTMAN FIGHTS BACK). Composer Tan Dun, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and singer Coco Lee also appear in a brief segment (4 mins) promoting the film's soundtrack release. The two Lee videos (featuring her singing the end title song in Mandarin and English) included on the Region 3 release have not been carried over here, unfortunately.

Ang Lee from UNLEASHING DRAGONS. Image courtesy Columbia Tristar.
There is also a surprisingly loose and jokey audio commentary from Lee and his longtime associate, James Schamus (who served as co-writer / co-executive producer here) that was recorded prior to the hugely successful North American release. Lee mentions that the film's opening set-up is for the benefit of Western audiences, in order to establish the characters and the setting, something that Chinese viewers found laborious and off-putting, expecting the film to launch directly into the action (the first fight does not occur until the 16 minute mark); in order to come up with some new foley FX for the swordfights (so that they wouldn't use the same ones heard over and over in HK movies), Lee and his soundmen created them using things they bought at a New York hardware store; and how
he felt obliged to adhere to some familiar genre tenets but was determined to put at least a tiny spin on others. Schamus keeps the track moving and makes a lot of self-deprecating jokes about his work but also relates some interesting anecdotes. Of particular note are the challenges he faced as a writer, trying to craft his notion of what the story and dialogue should be, only to be told by Lee and his other Chinese collaborators things like "It's great...but he/she would never do/say that." He also runs down the incredibly complicated financing of the movie (although it is officially classified as Taiwanese, the $US15 million dollar production got made largely because of pre-sales to a number of different countries). The pair do not say much about the actors or the technical aspects but it is a worthwhile talk that touches on most of the major topics of interest. Columbia Tristar has also issued the movie as part of their "Super Bit" line for the same price. That DVD has no extras and only offers the movie in Mandarin but it does sport a higher bit rate and a DTS track. Opinions are mixed as to just how much better the picture quality is on that version; in general, the difference is reportedly noticeable but still pretty minimal. However, if you love the movie and also happen to have a DTS decoder, the Super Bit disc will be worth adding to your collection.

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