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CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen
Director:  Ang Lee
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1 (Chinese and English), Dolby Surround (English)
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  120 Minutes
Release Date:  June 5, 2001

“A faithful heart makes wishes come true…”

Film ****

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is so exhilarating a movie going experience that not even the richest cache of adjectives can possibly convey the experience.  After all, there are good movies, and there are great movies, but very rare is the picture that so envelops and captivates you that it becomes a permanent part of your psyche.  The first time I saw the film, it filled my dreams every night for a week.  The second time I saw it, even more so.  By the third time, I realized I was more than a fan of the film, and this was no mere cinematic experience.  Director Ang Lee had created a whole other world with his glorious masterpiece, and it was a world I never wanted to leave.

From a historical standpoint, Lee’s film has roots in the second of two major martial arts picture traditions.  The first was kung fu:  these were action movies involving lots of hand-to-hand combat and fighting styles, occasional some weaponry, and steeped in a tradition of folklore.  It eventually evolved with the likes of Jackie Chan and others into modern settings, mixing elaborate stuntwork and sometimes a little bit of comedy in for effect.   This type of film found a Western audience.

The second tradition was the swordplay film.  It’s origins came more from fantasy and legend.  Elaborate wirework was employed to give the characters the impression of being able to fly, soar, make giant leaps and otherwise defy gravity.  This type of movie never found an audience outside of the East, and as a genre, it never really earned the chance to evolve.  Were it not for die hard fans like the Wachowski Brothers who took their love for the swordplay film and implemented its style into The Matrix, there might not have been a Crouching Tiger.

Ironically, with The Matrix, audiences were given the one thing necessary for them to accept such a style:  an expository story.  In traditional swordplay films, and indeed, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, no explanation is given as to why the characters move the way they did.  The roots of authentic martial arts are in spirituality, not physicality, and it was always believed that those who mastered the highest level of the arts would achieve a mind-over-body kind of control that would free themselves from physical limitations.

But the history of the genre is only one part of what makes this movie so special.  There is a rich, beautiful story at play here, peopled with wonderful and memorable characters who seek honor, make choices, and endure consequences, winning our hearts and our sympathies.   At the core of this so-called ‘action’ picture are two incredible love stories driven by two strong, independent women.

One of the love stories is a lingering, unrequited love shared by Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh).  In their eyes, their voices, and their quiet moments, we can sense the unfulfilled longing shared by these warrior souls, bound by a sense of duty to restrain their feelings.   The other is between the young aristocrat Jen (Ziyi) and the reckless bandit Lo (Chen).  In a beautiful flashback sequence, we learn their story, and wonder if the restrictions of honor and loyalty will force them down the same lonely path as the elder pair.

Jen is engaged to be married, but longs for the free and exciting life of a warrior.  She envies Shu Lien, who in turn tries to make clear that there is a price to paid for that kind of lifestyle.  But Jen has a few surprises up her sleeve…the revelation of which make for some of the film’s best moments.

The movie combines the deep emotion and poetry of its story with its amazing, fantasy action sequences.  The beauty of the film is how each serves the other…in a typical action film, even a martial arts one, the story is a thin clothesline on which to hang key fight sequences.   Here, the spirit of the love stories seems to lend wind to the action pieces.  The wirework, orchestrated by Yuen Wo-Ping (of Matrix fame, and also former opera brother of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung), elevates the art form to a new level, as characters soar through the air, skip across water, leap from rooftop to rooftop, or, in the most unforgettable sequence, sway from the tops of trees as they battle.

The Oscar for cinematography was well deserved…rarely has a movie’s camera style worked so fluently with the action on screen to bring already elevated material to an even higher level.  If Lee’s actors give us the illusion of flight, his camera lets us share in that.   The cinematography heightens the picture’s illusion of breaking free from physical limitations.  It’s one thing to consider two warriors leaping from rooftop to rooftop in a spectacular chase scene, but when the camera actually follows them as they leap, the effect becomes breathtaking.

But all factors come into play to make the picture work.  Tan Dun’s amazing, Oscar winning score punctuates the action with relentless percussion and lifts the romantic spirit with haunting cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma.  And Lee was smart in casting two stars not only noted for their action abilities, but acting skills as well.  The performances of both Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are moving, in sometimes beautifully subtle ways.   A simple glance or gesture conveys volumes of information; that’s how strong and genuine their chemistry is.  And young Zhang Ziyi is a tremendous find…beautiful and fiery and skilled in her own right, her passion fuels the key center part of the film.

As a final thought, I, like many film fans, have a few yearly Academy Award grumbles…the fact that an unedifying by-the-numbers sword and toga “epic” took Best Picture over a truly unique, beautiful and imaginative film like Crouching Tiger is one, to be sure, but not nearly as painful as the snub of Ang Lee in the Best Director category.  Lee’s work was groundbreaking and visionary, and easily the most deserving. 

In other words, don’t let the concept of Awards sway you.   Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was truly the best film of 2000, and one of the greatest motion picture experiences of the last decade, at least.

Video ****

Having seen the film twice theatrically, I was comforted to know that the studio behind the release was Columbia Tri Star…the film was instantly dear to my heart, and I knew they wouldn’t disappoint when it came to the DVD.  I was right.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may be one of the most exemplary transfer efforts to date from a studio with a reputation for excellence.  Not even the theatrical experience could compare; I was stunned by how much more bright, colorful and detailed the picture was than I had thought.  The visuals are stunning, from the wide, beautiful desert landscapes, the rich green forests, the intricate layout of the city…every color, shape and image rings pure.  Look at the detail on Jen’s wedding dress…a brilliant red color, but with lots of tiny gold emblems and multicolored designs.  If there was ever an image that would lend itself to bleeding, this would be it, but it doesn’t.  Lee’s natural light photography never lends itself to grain, even in low light settings.  From start to finish, this is a gorgeous and reference quality transfer.

Audio ****

Never has a score been served so well by a 5.1 mix as Tan Dun’s music here…the open, multi channel orchestration is enveloping and powerful, instant elevating the listening experience into something magical.  The action scenes, as you would expect, will give your system quite a workout with plenty of discreet and well balanced touches, and smooth crossovers from speaker to speaker.  Almost as good are the ambient touches of natural sound, including thunder, rain, the wind in the trees, the sound of a river…all of these are expertly blended in such a way to draw the viewer in to the experience.  The English 5.1 dubbed track is quite good, as far as they go, but I still prefer the original Chinese (though the subtitles do NOT default on when you start the disc…be warned).

Features ***1/2

For starters, the disc includes a terrific commentary track by director Lee and co-writer James Schamus.  As this project was a long time dream of Lee’s, his insight into the making of the picture and what it meant to him personally makes for a warm and pleasant listen.   There is also the original Bravo channel special “Unleashing the Dragon”, plus an interview with Michelle Yeoh (in which she reports that she and Chow Yun-Fat are trying to convince Lee to make a prequel…bring it on!!), a 7 minute photo montage, filmographies, plus both the U.S. and international trailers.

Summary:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is movie magic and escapism at its finest and most pure.   With a wonderful, emotional story at its core and a sense of action that makes human movement as much a beautiful work of art as any routine by Fred Astaire, a strong cast, amazing camerawork, powerful score and an absolutely brilliant and unequalled sense of direction by Ang Lee, this is a film I would shamelessly beg anyone to try.  With this glorious and top notch DVD transfer from Columbia Tri Star, no film fan should pass it up.  Unequivocally recommended.