It’s hard to believe that Ang Lee’s martial arts classic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is already 16 years old. Back when it was released, it was a very memorable experience, not only because it was a great film, but also because it was the first time I had gone to see a foreign language film in a theater. I wasn’t even a particular fan of martial arts films growing up, but it looked like it would be an interesting experience, and that it was, to say the least. The film would go on to be nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards, winning four that included Best Foreign Language Film, and marking one of those somewhat rare times when a foreign language film nabbed a Best Picture nomination.
16 years later, the film is still widely discussed as one of the director’s finest works and is credited as having revitalized a tired genre. To celebrate its importance in cinema history, it was recently selected to be included in Sony Pictures’ “Supreme Cinema” series (which has also included “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “The Fifth Element,” and “Leon: The Professional”), giving us the perfect excuse to go back and take a look at the highly-acclaimed film, one that I haven’t seen in nearly 15 years, to see if it still holds the same magic it did all those years ago.
The film begins as master swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) returns home from his training. He divulges to his fellow warrior, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), that he plans to give up his sword to his friend Sir Te (Sihung Lung) after a recent meditation during his training left him uneasy. Shu Lien delivers the sword to Sir Te, but that very night it is stolen by a thief who has somehow learned the secret of Li Mu Bai’s fighting style. It doesn’t take long for Shu Lien to discover that the thief is actually Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), a governor’s daughter who is soon to be married, and who has actually been the protégé of the sinister Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Chang), the woman who murdered Li Mu Bai’s master. We soon learn that Jen Yu is little more than a lost and conflicted child, torn between her duty towards her upcoming marriage and her desire to live a free and adventurous life. It’s up to Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien to help her sort it all out before her wild behavior ends up doing irreparable damage to her life.
Of course, when most people think back on the film, the first thing that comes to mind is the jaw-dropping fight sequences, choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping (“Kung Fu Hustle,” “Kill Bill: Vol. 2”). These fights are executed with such grace and precision that you can’t help but admire the immense skill that goes into every little exciting move. These sequences required split-second timing and were no doubt very dangerous at times, especially with the actors being hoisted by large cranes in several scenes, but it all comes together beautifully, thrilling the viewer and stunning them into spellbound silence.
However, there is much more to admire about Lee’s classic than just its memorable action sequences. For instance, the sheer beauty of the film itself is enough to captivate the audience. Featuring Oscar-winning cinematography from Peter Pau and art direction from Tim Yip, the film’s design becomes just as stunning as its fights, practically putting you in a trance as it unfolds its simple, but effective tale. Earning additional Oscar nomination for direction, film editing, and costume design, there’s no denying that the film’s visual and technical elements are of the highest caliber, completing the necessary mixture of components to make this a fully-immersive period piece and, as one could easily argue, a work of art.
As mentioned, the film’s story is a little on the simple side. In fact, you really could just boil it down to a mix of stories of love, revenge, and a young woman who sees no way to get what she wants. However, it still manages to work, weaving all of these pieces into a mostly-compelling tale that has you wondering if love will ever be acknowledged and if a wild spirit will ever find her right path. That’s not saying that it all works, but most of it does.
The part that has always been the most troublesome is the elongated flashback that shows us how Jen Yu fell in love with a thief in the desert. It goes on for about 15-20 minutes and doesn’t really add much to the film, merely serving to bring it to a halt and make the audience wait until it gets a move on again. Cutting back on this flashback would have made the film flow a lot better, but luckily it doesn’t end up taking away too much from the film’s major accomplishments.
As the film comes to a close and the trance slowly wears off, there will be some who are left with the mere notion that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is an impressive action flick, when in fact it’s so much more. All of the little pieces, from Lee’s outstanding direction right down to the intricate various details of the production, come together to form a gorgeous cinematic experience that is as much a feast for the eyes as it is an exciting actioner that gets the heart pumping, with just a little twist of romance to play upon the heartstrings.
Even after 16 years, it still holds up marvelously as a milestone in its genre, leaving little doubt that it will continue to do so for many more years to come. Lee’s film did indeed manage to revive a dying genre, not only by capturing some of the most impressive fights ever shot, but also by reminding everyone that such films can be about more than just martial arts, and for all of this and more, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” will always be remembered.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” comes to Special Edition Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The film has been restored in 4K resolution, making the image perfectly sharp and clear, and truly bringing out the beauty in Peter Pau’s Oscar-winning cinematography. The Dolby Atmos audio is equally stunning, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and Tan Dun’s Oscar-winning score in excellent quality. Overall, the film has been remastered with the best of care, leaving you with an unbeatable experience.
Commentary with Ang Lee and James Schamus: A fascinating track that has the director and co-writer/executive producer giving you lots of background information about the film.
Commentary with Cinematographer Peter Pau: Another great commentary track in which the director of photography reminisces about making the film.
Deleted Scenes (8 Minutes): A collection of six deleted scenes that are interesting to watch, but you can easily see why they were cut.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - A Retrospective (81 Minutes): An excellent and informative featurette that has critic/journalist Tasha Robinson interviewing director Ang Lee, editor Tim Squyres, and co-writer/executive producer James Schamus.
The Making of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (19 Minutes): A vintage “making of” featurette that features archival interviews and lots of behind the scenes footage.
A Conversation with Michelle Yeoh (14 Minutes): A featurette that has actress Michelle Yeoh looking back at making the film.
A Love Before Time Music Video
Even after 16 years, Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” remains an excellent martial arts classic, featuring stunning choreography and gorgeous, Oscar-winning cinematography and art direction. It’s a film that hits just about all the right notes, mixing action, adventure, romance, and drama into a film that may be remembered by most for its fight sequences, but which deserves to be remembered just as much for its beauty and elegance.
Available on Special Edition Blu-ray starting today.