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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, set in 19th-century China, tells the story of Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), warriors who only wish for a peaceful existence with each other, but who become unwillingly caught up in a tangled story involving a stolen sword, long-delayed revenge, hidden identities, and conflicting loyalties. Directed by Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon combines a dramatic story with beautifully-choreographed martial-arts action.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Not being familiar with the genre of martial arts movies, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I found the movie to be engaging from the very beginning, enjoyable throughout, and very distinctive. Probably the most enjoyable aspect of the movie for me is how fresh and different it felt from typical Hollywood fare. My stereotyped idea of martial arts movies, coming from having seen a few Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies, was that they tried to be “realistic” in the fights, so Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s highly fantastic actions sequences were both surprising and delightful.

Considering that director Ang Lee searched for leading actors who could do their own martial arts sequences, the cast is very strong. Since stunt doubles aren't used, Ang was able to shoot more realistic and interesting close-up shots during fight scenes, as there was no need for clever angles to hide the use of doubles. Michelle Yeoh is superb as Shu Lien, with a wonderfully expressive face conveying strong, yet controlled, emotion. There are also good performances from Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi, who plays the young aristocrat Jen Yu.

There's a strong flavor of The Matrix in the martial arts action, which is not surprising considering that choreographer Yuen Wo Ping was responsible for both. The action is fast, smooth, and convincing, while at the same time being dance-like in its beauty of movement. At the same time, the action sequences are used to advance characterization, as we can see the reactions of the characters when they discover the true strengths and weaknesses of their opponents.

Visually, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is a feast for the eyes. Fight scenes are livened up with the use of interesting camera techniques and dramatic close-ups. The overall sense of being in a different world is evoked by the lush views of the different landscapes of China, from thickly-wooded hills threaded with narrow streams to unforgiving desert.

The storyline is complex enough to always have something interesting developing, yet without getting mired down by too many plot threads. The story stays away from epic events, wisely choosing to focus on four main characters and the events that shape their relationships and the decisions that they must make. Strong characters of both sexes, with believable motivations and relationships, add deeper layer to the film as well. In the end, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has an emotional depth that makes it much more substantial than just an action movie.

My attention stayed very focused throughout the movie, though there is a long flashback sequence in the middle of the film that seems slightly out of place; it’s enjoyable and provides useful background to one of the characters, but it doesn’t quite seem to fit into the structure of the rest of the movie.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. The picture quality is good, though not outstanding. Colors were attractive, with subdued browns and grays in some scenes, while other scenes had bright green foliage and colorful festive garments. The contrast was satisfactory, as shown in a few dimly-lit indoor scenes.

The DVD provides the original Dolby 5.1 Mandarin soundtrack as well as a dubbed Dolby 2.0 English and Dolby 2.0 French; subtitles are offered in English and French.

The quality of the English dubbed track is very high, as the voice actors turn in solid performances. Though they speak English, Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat do not provide their own dubbing, but the voices that are provided fit very well. It’s also interesting to note that the dialogue in the English soundtrack is much fuller and more detailed than what appears in the English subtitles. Apparently, the subtitles were kept brief in order to fit neatly on the screen; the actors are clearly saying more than what appears in the text. Many of the conversations flow better and make more sense with the English dubbing as opposed to the sometimes cryptically brief subtitles. Additionally, since Yeoh and Yun Fat had to learn Mandarin for their performances (as Yeoh reveals in her interview), in this case you aren’t losing too much authenticity by hearing the dubbed version.

I recommend that on the first watching you play it with the English dubbed track. The subtitles can be tricky to watch, as it’s possible to wind up slightly confused about the story because you looked away at the wrong moment and missed a key plot element mentioned in the subtitles. Choosing the dubbed track allows you to follow the story without having to worry about missing a crucial piece of information, and it also allows you to enjoy the cinematography and imagery of the film more fully, as you won’t have to be constantly looking at the bottom of the screen. On the second watching (for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a movie that definitely merits multiple viewings), you should consider watching it with the original Mandarin soundtrack with English subtitles, thus allowing you to get the original flavor of the film’s dialogue now that you are familiar with the storyline.

The sound quality of the Mandarin Dolby 5.1 track is good, with use of surround sound for environmental effects, though it did not seem to be used to the fullest. The dialogue seemed clear, though it’s difficult to judge since I don’t speak Mandarin. Unfortunately, the English dubbed track is only in Dolby 2.0, which is a disappointment. Dialogue was clear in this track, though obviously there was less use of surround.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The disc features animated menus, which show clips from the film and are thus a bit tedious to navigate through. One mild warning is in order: some of the clips are taken from quite late in the movie, and in particular, the image shown in the subtitle option menu could be construed as a spoiler. It’s not much of a spoiler, considering that you don’t yet know who any of these characters are, but still, it wasn’t a good choice. In any case, the default setting for the R1 disc is the English track, so you will be in good shape if you stick with my recommendation above. You can also change the settings with your DVD player’s remote without going through the disc’s menus, if necessary.

This DVD comes with a reasonable assortment of special features. A 15-minute making-of featurette provides some insight into the creation of the film, though it tends to be of the “promotional” style with the actors describing the characters they play. There are also brief interviews with director Ang Lee and a few of the other English-speaking crew. Another 15-minute featurette is an interview with Michelle Yeoh, which is also moderately interesting. Other special features include trailers, a photo montage, production notes, filmographies, and a commentary track with Ang Lee and James Schamus.

Overall, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a very enjoyable and distinctive movie, and definitely one that’s worth having in your collection.