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Introduction
Ang Lee is perhaps the last person one might expect to fill the director’s chair on a summer event movie like Hulk. The retiring and softly spoken Taiwanese helmer was best known for his family-based dramas such as Eat Drink Man Woman (later remade for an American audience as the anodyne Tortilla Soup), Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning scripted Sense And Sensibility and The Ice Storm.

So what changed? Namely a film, in his native Taiwanese tongue, known to Western audiences as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ride With The Devil may have simultaneously made critics sit up and take notice while cinemagoers promptly went to sleep but U.S. and UK word-of-mouth transformed Lee’s ‘kung fu’ movie into an Occidental smash which bagged four Oscars and four BAFTAs alike.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - Superbit Collection
Movie
Famed swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) returns to Beijing to put down, for once and for all, his weapon the fabled Green Destiny. There he meets with his former expert partner in justice Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh); still bound by the strictures of their mutual martial culture, neither can posit their true emotions to the other.

Once in the court under cover of darkness, while under the stewardship of Master Li, the Green Destiny is stolen. Yu Shu Lien spies the thief and gives chase but is prevented from apprehending the surprisingly skilled villain by the intervention of Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei). With Yu Shu Lien’s suspicions falling on Jen Yu (Zhang Zi Yi), the headstrong daughter of a prominent nobleman, Li Mu Bai attempts to draw out the thief in the hope of revenging himself against Jade Fox for the murder of his Wudan mountain master.

Upon meeting the thief, still managing to remain anonymous, Li Mu Bai recognises several moves that are the preserve of the teachings of Wudan. So intrigued is he, Li Mu Bai offers to instruct the thief in the rest of the secret manual so as to school a fighter worthy of legitimately wielding the Green Destiny. However, Jade Fox intercedes once more and the chance is lost.

With a divergence of opinion between the unrequited lovers on the role of the Green Destiny comes a parting of ways as Li Mu Bai heads back to Wudan mountain. It is at this time that impetuous Jen Yu is forced into a prospective marriage. Seeking adventure, when her aristocratic coach party comes under attack from the outlanders bandit Lo (Chang Chen) known as ‘Dark Cloud’, she heads into the wastelands before falling in love with the roguish outlaw.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - Superbit Collection
Recognising that she must be reunited with her family, unwilling as she is, Jen Yu returns to the court where her fat becomes inextricably entwined with those of Yu Shu Lien, Li Mu Bai and the Green Destiny itself…

By now there must be few in the general cinema going population who have yet to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For those who have somehow allowed this movie to pass them by, a simple recommendation would be to implore the purchase of this film on whatever format is available. Richly deserving of its worldwide critical and commercial success, the legacy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon continues to grow among more recent output from the West and the East. Big budget Korean/Hong Kong co-productions of Bichunmoo and Musa were made possible by the resurgence of public interest in the swordplay drama while Zhang Yimou’s deliriously beautiful Hero has cemented ‘martial art-house’ as a financially viable cinematic genre.

Openly acknowledging the lead taken from King Hu’s masterful but rarely seen (in the West) Touch Of Zen lensed in 1969, Ang Lee applied his exquisitely deft touch behind the camera for a film as rich in its storytelling as the lushness of its visuals. Employing the full use of Peter Pau’s jaw-dropping cinematography, interior and exterior locations are resplendent of the period and serve as more than merely a backdrop upon which the characters’ relationships are to be played out. Thus there is a wonderful evocation of the era and the culture that exacerbates the façade of the constructed outward passivity of Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai as they are unable to truly emote to one another.

In this respect Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are outstanding in the lead roles; more credit being due in so far as neither had formal knowledge of Mandarin with the Malaysian born but English-educated Yeoh having to spend hours each day learning to recite her lines phonetically. Indeed, for those who may only recognise the pair from, say, The Replacement Killers or Tomorrow Never Dies respectively, this movie can serve as testament to their acting skills (Chow Yun-Fat’s enormous presence is undeniable) in amongst all those explosions.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - Superbit Collection
Chang Chen gives his all in a real blood n’ thunder turn as Lo and Zhang Zi Yi excels as the precocious, not to mention capricious, teenager Jen Yu who successfully treads a narrow line in perpetually alienating yet captivating the audience. Zhang Zi Yi was as excellent in The Road Home, the film that brought her to Ang Lee’s attention, yet having seen her playing essentially the same role in Musa, Hero and, hell, even Rush Hour 2, one hopes that she really does possess the talent to branch out as her Asian co-stars have done.

Fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping’s meticulous preparation of his performers has passed into movie myth (just ask Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne the punishment they received trying to get that Matrix dojo sequence right) and the action staging, be it with weapons or bare hands, in a tea house or atop a tree canopy, is altogether phenomenal.

That said, regular Lee scribe James Schamus, here collaborating with Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung, crafts an intriguing and involving story in terms of dialogue and patina, based on the preternatural Chinese fairytale which itself presupposes shades of Shakespeare, to engage the emotions in addition to the adrenal glands of the audience. Factor in an affectingly evocative score from Tan Dun with winsome cello solos from Yo Yo Ma and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon emerges as a momentous movie achievement.

Video
Given the hardly shabby visual presentation of the initial Columbia Tri-Star R2 release, there were high hopes for this Superbit edition. In which case this edition is something of a disappointment. Yes, the overall image is sharper. Yes, shadow detail is better and there’s less grain during the Yu Shu Lien/Jen Yu nighttime rooftop sequence. Yes, colours have slightly more depth.

It is undeniable that, all in all, the Superbit edition has a better picture but the improvement, truth be told, is very small and certainly not the quantum leap that the marketing blurb may have you believe. This minor quibble aside, it’s still a sumptuous image and a deserving transfer for the material.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - Superbit Collection
Audio
Unfortunately the caveat outlined above also applies to the disc’s audio output. First choice would easily have to be the DTS 5.1 offering but, at a steady rate of 768kbs, it does not go the extra mile that one might have expected. The DTS does provide slightly more presence by way of atmospheric channel separation with each swoosh of the Green Destiny but on the whole fidelity is not greatly cleaner nor is bass reproduction stronger to any great extent.

Perhaps this mild chagrin can be attributed to the fact that the original Dolby Digital track, reproduced here at its usual 448kbs, is one of the best currently available in that particular format. Kicks and the percussive low clicking elements of Tan Dun’s score are remarkably well rendered and there are some terrific spatial affectations in the weapon-wielding combat sequences.

Whichever option is selected, dialogue remains consistently strong from the centre channel. The Mandarin language is accessible in both DTS and Dolby Digital guises whereas the dubbed English is Dolby Digital only and best left well alone!

Extras
None. The standard Superbit grey/silver menus are employed and feel somewhat out of place given the nature of the movie, particularly when the standard edition employed some very ornate animated menus with loops of the score.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - Superbit Collection
Overall
Standard or Superbit? Tricky one this. For DTS junkies who are CTHD fans then the move to a Superbit disc should prompt no further enquiry. However, unless the viewer has equipment which Croseus would be proud to own, the performance gain is slight and the extras on the original release, while slim, make for some interesting background to the movie.

Therefore, if not currently DTS enabled then the audio commentary and featurettes (not forgetting the interview with Michelle Yeoh!) of the initial release should suffice. For those who can do without extras and wish to squeeze the few per cent of performance advantage would be well advised to pick up this enhanced edition. Either way, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an essential purchase. Buy it. Buy it now!


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