Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu zang long)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
(Wo hu zang long)
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jong (based on a book by Du Lu Wang)
Stars: Yun-Fat Chow (Li Mu Bai), Michelle Yeoh (Shu Lien), Zhang Ziyi (Jen Yu), Chen Chang (Lo), Sihung Lung (Sir Te), Pei-pei Cheng (Jade Fox), Fazeng Li (Governor Yu), Xian Gao (Bo), Yan Hai (Madam Yu)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2000
Country: Hong Kong / Taiwan / U.S.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Blu-Ray
Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonIf there is one thing few American directors have achieved, it is an elegant action movie. Most American action movies are loud and bombastic, full of sound and fury but signifying virtually nothing other than clumsy escapism. This is not say that they don't work in their own grunting, primal way, but few if any manage to attain any level of elegance and intelligence.

Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu zang long) is a perfect example of what American action movies are often lacking: It doesn't try to blow you out of your seat in a rapid-fire, nerve-jangling, Michael Bay-ish orgasm of violence, but instead captures you in suspended awe for prolonged periods of time. It builds to the action sequences with intelligent character and situational development, so that when the fight scenes commence, they have a deeper meaning--true emotional intensity. The kicks, punches, and twirls all have resonance beyond the (often impossible) physical action; you get the sense that these characters are actually fighting for something beyond solving a dilemma posed by the narrative.

Thus, it is only icing on the cake that the martial arts fight sequences are so perfectly constructed. Melding the fast-paced, eye-rattling give-and-take choreography of Jackie Chan with the controlled, poetic, but fierce visual eloquence of John Woo, director Ang Lee and cinematographer Peter Pau stage a half-dozen breathtaking fight sequences that hold you in raptured awe. The mythical significance of the fights is heightened by Lee's use of invisible wires and digital effects to give the impression that the characters can literally fly through the air. Whether it be gliding along the edges of rooftops in the dark of night, scaling 40-foot walls in nimble leaps, or dueling on the precariously bending tips of bamboo trees hundreds of feet in the air, each fight mixes tough physicality with an almost supernatural, bird-like weightlessness. It's not so much that the characters defy gravity as they simply transcend it.

The title, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is borrowed from Chinese mythology, and it refers to someone hiding his or her strengths, a theme that is woven throughout the film. The narrative, which takes place in a fantasy version of ancient China and was adapted from one part of a five-volume work by Du Lu Wang, tells the story of two warrior, Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow) and Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), each of whom is adept in the ancient martial art of Wudan. Li Mu Bai is a swordsman of great renown, but when the film opens, he has decided to retire and turn over his magical sword, the Green Destiny, to an elder named Sir Te (Sihung Lun).

The sword is promptly stolen in the middle of the night by a lithe warrior dressed in black, and even Shu Lien is unable to get it back. It turns out that the mysterious warrior is working for a criminal mastermind named Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng), who stole the art of Wudan and was responsible for the death of Li Mu Bai's master. The theft of his sword and the chance to avenge his master's murder naturally brings Li Mu Bai out of retirement and back into his warrior life.

However, despite the fact that Li Mu Bai is played by Chow Yun-Fat, one of the greatest action stars to emerge out of Asia in the last 20 years (despite his regrettably weak presence in American films), the real drama here is in the female conflicts. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is rare in its focus on women warriors, with the men often sidelined. Shu Lien comes to center-stage when the mysterious warrior who stole the Green Destiny turns out to be Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the wide-eyed, seemingly innocent 20-year-old daughter of a nobleman. Shu Lien has befriended Jen Yu, who looks up to her, so it is particularly difficult that they turn out to be antagonists. Jen Yu is actually the disciple of Jade Fox and is thoroughly adept in the ways of Wudan, making her a formidable opponent, even for Li Mu Bai. That she is young, arrogant, and gripped in a sense of her own invincibility makes her even more dangerous.

Jen Yu's character is a perfect example of the film's dramatic complexities. It would be easy for her to have been painted in purely evil shades, and it would have been even easier for Li Mu Bai to have been characterized solely in the heroic terms of wanting to eliminate her along with Jade Fox. Yet, Jen Yu remains fully sympathetic throughout. This is aided considerably by what appears at first to be an unwarranted narrative departure in the middle of the film that takes a considerable amount of time to tell in flash-back Jen Yu's romantic involvement with a desert bandit named Lo (Chen Chang). Narratively speaking, this was a considerable risk because it brings the present-tense story to a dead halt in order to backtrack, but it works because the unlikely romance between Jen and Lo--which begins in violence and ends in passion--is so intense. It allows Jen to show her human side.

While initially making his name in his native Taiwan, director Ang Lee had spent several years in the late 1990s making American films--the Jane Austen period piece Sense and Sensibility (1995), the Nixon-era suburban-nagst melodrama The Ice Storm (1997), and the unconventional Civil War romance Ride With the Devil (1999). On the face of things, he seemed an unlikely candidate to helm an operatic martial arts film in Mandarin Chinese, yet it turned out he was perfect for the job. His adeptness at staging complex fight sequences is startling (even the most inured martial arts fanatic will be wowed by what he puts on screen), but it is his skill with actors and his gentle treatment of the melodramatic material that puts Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in another league (he also punctuates several moments with unexpected humor, both wordplay and sight gags, that works marvelously).

The story, despite its literary roots, is in many ways pure pulp. Yet, the elegance and emotion with which Lee brings it to life elevates the material. Some of the most affecting moments are the most understated, especially the simmering, repressed romance between Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien that cannot be realized because Shu Lien was once engaged to Li Mu Bai's brother-in-oath. One can only hope that American action directors might learn something from the fact that the deep emotional rivers running throughout the narrative of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon serve to enhance the action and make it so much more than sheer physicality.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio2.40:1
  • Chinese Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French
  • Audio commentary by cinematographer Peter Pau
  • Audio commentary by director Ang Lee and co-writer James Schamus
  • “Unleashing the Dragon” making-of featurette
  • Video interview with Michelle Yeoh
  • Photo gallery
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateJuly 27, 2010

    Not surprisingly, the gorgeous cinematography in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon looks ravishing in full 1080p high definition, although the image is overall just a tad softer than I thought it would be. Detail is still outstanding though, and the beautiful range of colors, from the intense primary hues of the characters’ costumes to the lush green of the bamboo forest, have a lively kick without looking oversaturated. The nighttime scenes are also well handled, with good black levels and shadow detail. The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack does as well with Tan Dun’s intense, Oscar-winning orchestral score as it does with all the clashing and clanging of swords, which put you right in the middle of the action. Purists will want to listen to the Mandarin Chinese soundtrack, but those with an aversion to reading subtitles can opt for an English track.
    The only new supplement on this Blu-Ray disc is an audio commentary by Oscar-winning cinematographer Peter Pau, whose emphasis on technical detail and explaining how each moment of the film’s look was achieved contrasts nicely with the previously available commentary by director Ang Lee and executive producer/co-writer James Schamus, who are old friends and colleagues and therefore provide a relaxed, spontaneous discussion of the film that is punctuated with jokes, kidding, and even Lee providing some of his own sound effects. The rest of the supplements are old hat for those who have bought the previous DVDs: the 20-minute “Unleashing the Dragon” making-of featurette, which includes interviews with Lee, Shamus, and actors Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh; a 13-minute video interview with Yeoh, and a six-minute photo gallery slideshow.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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