Without Green Destiny, you are nothing!
Martial arts films are nothing new to American audiences. Bruce Lee became a sensation in 1973 with Enter the Dragon…if only he had lived to see it premiere here. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal both had strings of martial arts flavored action flicks in the late ’80s and early ’90s that were reasonably successful. Jackie Chan and Jet Li have both seen rampant popularity in the last couple years. Americans have also embraced subtitled foreign films on rare occasions, like with Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. We’ve even been exposed to Ang Lee’s films before, such as Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. But it would be the synthesis of all three things — a subtitled martial arts film directed by Ang Lee — that would truly capture the public’s attention: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yes, it is all those things, but it is so much more, and I would dare say that it’s a movie that would satisfy anyone.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon takes place in a fantastical version of 19th century China. Everything is very nearly the same as the real world, only here the laws of gravity don’t quite apply to the fighters and warriors schooled in the martial arts. One such warrior, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is prepared to retire from the lifestyle to settle down. He gives his mystical sword, Green Destiny, to his partner in arms Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to entrust to a nobleman. Soon after, Green Destiny is stolen by a lithe young thief with knowledge of Wudan, the sacred, secret martial art of Li Mu Bai’s sect. It turns out the thief is Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the provincial governor. Furthermore, it turns out that her governess and mentor is none other than Jade Fox, a legendary thief who murdered Li Mu Bai’s master and stole his training manual. What follows is a tale not just of fighting and revenge, but also of redemption and love.
It may surprise some of you to learn that, while Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a raging success in most of the world, it was not particularly successful in its homeland. Why would that be? Because this genre and style of film are nothing new in China. The term commonly used for the genre is wuxia. “Wu” refers to war or martial arts, while “xia” is a term difficult to translate into English, which refers to a warrior or adventurer, often one who specifically is a swordsman. The roots of wuxia literature run deep, but it evolved into its current form in the early 20th century, and after World War II had strong influence from the pulp fiction of the West. In film, these movies often use wirework and special effects to create the fantasy element of the stories, and they often have a grand scale. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with all of Ang Lee’s trademark pathos, must have seemed quite dull in comparison.
Yes, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a martial arts movie, but like I’ve said, it is so much more. I’ll add parenthetically that I was very excited to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when it opened locally, but my wife was rather apathetic and only went along because I insisted that a female friend (DVD Verdict’s own Judge Lindsey Hoffman, to be precise) had loved it and said that she would too. Melanie (my wife) does not share my love of kung fu flicks, and was not keen on seeing a subtitled movie (one of the few foreign films I’ve ever talked her into watching, Run Lola Run, we watched dubbed — the only time I’ve watched it like that). The large theater was quite full, and surprisingly the audience was a healthy mix of film geeks, older people, and families with school-aged children. I expected that the kids would be bored and loud, but I was pleased to hear nary a whisper during the entire movie, and the buzz in the theater after it was over was very positive. Oh, and my doubting wife? She loved it and couldn’t wait to watch it again when I received the DVD. Her attraction to the film was Michelle Yeoh (which reminds me…I must have her watch Supercop) and the love story between Zhang Ziyi and a rough-and-tumble desert thief named Lo (Chang Chen). I loved it for…well, I loved everything about it, but in particular for the cinematography (more on that in a minute) and the amazing fight scenes.
There’s a reason the fights of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are so amazing: they were choreographed by one of the greatest fight choreographers in the business, Yuen Woo-Ping. His career in martial arts films dates back to the early 1970s, but one of his best known early films is Drunken Master, often cited as Jackie Chan’s best film. In 1996, he choreographed Black Mask starring Jet Li, which was little more than mindless action, but it was astounding mindless action. Unfortunately, it would not be released in the United States until 1999, when another Woo-Ping choreographed movie would capture the attention of our filmgoers: The Matrix. Though enhanced with computer gimmickry, many of its incredible fight sequences were simply gussied-up, old-fashioned wirework. His work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is even more impressive than The Matrix because it feels more authentic and grounded in “reality,” and relies less on digital trickery — yes, the women are running across rooftops, and yes, Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi are suspended above the ground in bamboo treetops.
I could talk about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon all day, but perhaps I’ll save myself some time (and not force you, my readers, to endure an endless lecture on the mysteries and joys of this film) and focus on the elements of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon upon which the voters for the Academy Awards deemed worthy to bestow their coveted prizes. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated in ten categories, and won four Oscars: Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Original Score.
Best Art Direction/Set Decoration and Best Cinematography are best discussed as a group, along with Best Costume Design, for which it was nominated but lost to Gladiator. Together they inspire the adjective most often used to describe Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: beautiful. Everything about the film is beautiful, from the subtly detailed sets to the lavish, authentic costumes to the most breathtaking, jaw-dropping vistas perhaps ever captured on celluloid. And all of that is before the fighters even start moving in some of the most graceful, balletic martial arts sequences you’ll ever care to see. These aren’t the violent fights of other martial arts flicks; these are elegant, flowing displays that are like the dance sequences of musicals — it’s Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, only duking it out with swords. But there I go talking about the fight scenes again. Cinematographer Peter Pau has worked with some of Hong Kong’s greatest directors, such as John Woo (The Killer), Tsui Hark (Swordsman), and Ronny Yu (The Bride With White Hair). Unfortunately, he’s also had the misfortune of following these directors to Hollywood to work on some of their dismal stateside failures (Tsui Hark’s Double Team with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman, Ronny Yu’s Bride of Chucky). It makes you wish that Hollywood would learn its lesson, and when it brings foreign legends into its fold that it would allow them to do what they do best rather than watering it down for our feeble consumption. Perhaps Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will teach them that lesson.
I’m not a huge fan of foreign cinema. This is through no ill will, but rather through a lack of exposure, both intentional (caused by my lack of interest in many artsy foreign films) and unintentional (caused by their unavailability in the theaters of the small market in which I live). In fact, I dare say Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the only foreign film I saw in a theater, and the others were DVD Verdict assignments that I met with delight (Run Lola Run), apathy (Ma Vie En Rose), or annoyance (All About My Mother). But I digress. It does my heart some good to see American audiences embrace a movie at the box office that required them to read subtitles. In fact, I think it’s a shame that Columbia released the DVD with an English dub track, but that’s a rant I’ll save for later.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s score was composed by Tan Dun. He is best known as a classical composer, winning acclaim for a symphony in honor of the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. He has composed scores for two documentaries, Aktion K and In The Name Of The Emperor, and for the thriller Fallen. He marries energetic Chinese percussion with the haunting cello of Yo-Yo Ma, and the result is sweet, sweet music that will stay with you for some time after seeing the film. In fact, I’d say it ranks right up there as one of my favorite film scores, along with Basil Poledouris’ Conan The Barbarian and Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands. Like those scores (and unlike many others), it serves to highlight the emotions on the screen, rather than punching them up to unrealistic and manipulative heights.
For the DVD, Columbia presents a nice package. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Peter Pau’s eye-popping cinematography is equally eye-popping on DVD. The transfer is amazing, with perfect color reproduction. The only distractions are occasional edge overenhancement and more dust and speckles than you’d expect from a year-old film. Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is available in both its original Mandarin and an English dub. Naturally, I only viewed the full film with the original audio, though I did sample the English. Surrounds are used mostly for Tan Dun’s score, but the front soundstage is used to give space to the on-screen action. The dub is not as bad as you’d fear. It’s obvious that they went to great pains to avoid the laughable lack of synchronization between the actors’ mouths and the dialogue, but nonetheless the dub does have the distinct feel that it was recorded in a studio rather than on-set. Stick with the Mandarin, please.
For extra content, we get a commentary track, a making-of featurette, an interview with Michelle Yeoh, a photo montage, and the usual filmographies and theatrical trailers. The commentary track features Ang Lee and screenwriter/producer James Schamus. Lee and Schamus have worked together many times — Schamus has produced all seven films Lee has directed. The two have an easy rapport, and they laugh and joke with each other through the entire track. It’s a little light on hard facts about the making of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it’s still an enjoyable listen. The making-of feature was produced for the Bravo cable network. It’s a fairly thorough look at the making of the film, though it does seem balanced in favor of promotional material. The Michelle Yeoh interview segment runs about 13 minutes. She’s probably the best known of the lead actors, with her performances in Supercop and the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. She’s full of insightful comments about the film. The photo montage runs about six minutes, and is a slide show of promotional stills and on-the-set photos. There are two theatrical trailers, one the international version, one the U.S. version. Almost laughably so, it shows the difference in expectations of the filmgoing intelligence of Americans and everyone else. The international trailer uses music very similar in tone and style to the film, shows quite a bit of the Chinese characters, and focuses on the epic nature of the film. The American version? It has a techno score, focuses on the movie’s fight scenes, and (most odious of all) has Trailer Voice Guy explaining the story. Ick.
Nothing bad can I say about the film. It’s miraculous.
Why, Columbia, why? Why bow to the lowest common denominator and include a dubbed track? That’s just wrong. Someone in the alt.video.dvd newsgroup pointed out that, even worse, most people will probably see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with the dub and in pan ‘n’ scan. That’s not just wrong…that’s sick and wrong. I’m all for movies as entertainment; if you looked through my DVD rack you’d see more Jerry Bruckheimer flicks than artsy films that ran in tiny arthouse theaters. But, why can’t people at least try to appreciate something that stretches their minds? Why can’t they see movies as an art form rather than just another piece of entertainment? I weep.
In this super-special DVD edition day and age, it’s a little disappointing that Columbia did not deem Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon worthy of a more expansive set of supplemental material. It almost makes me think that we’re going to see them double dipping some time in the future.
Buy this DVD!