Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (UK - BD)
Chris checks out the long-awaited BD release of Ang Lee's acclaimed feature
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a tale of unrequited love set against the backdrop of eighteenth century China, featuring some of the most breathtaking scenery and beautifully choreographed martial arts action ever committed to film. Chow Yun-fat plays Li Mu-bai, a Wudang warrior of legendary skill. Wudang warriors are possessed of incredible reflexes and balance, and their form of weightless Kung Fu allows them to defy gravity itself. Yu Shu-lien (Michelle Yeoh) is an equally impressive martial artist and a proud warrior who has a long history with Mu-bai. Li Mu-bai and Shu-lien have a special bond; a bond that goes deeper than friendship, yet neither can express their true feelings for the other because of their sense of duty and honour.
Li Mu-bai has entrusted his sacred sword (the Green Destiny) to Shu-lien, who is on a mission to bring it to Mu-bai’s friend, Sir Te. It is hoped that with the sword in his care the trail of blood and carnage that has plagued its history will finally come to an end. While in the care of Sir Te, the Green Destiny is stolen by a thief believed to be the mysterious Jade Fox. Although confronted by Shu-lien, the thief shows remarkable skill in the art of Wudang and escapes with the sword. This draws Li Mu-bai into the fray as he attempts to uncover the true identity of the thief and return the sword to its resting place. Meanwhile, Shu-lien befriends Jen, the rebellious young daughter of a powerful governor, and over time begins to suspect that there is more to the girl than meets the eye...
I first saw Crouching Tiger during its UK theatrical run. I remember it quite well because it was only playing at one cinema in the whole of the city, and for a limited engagement at that. Still, I'd heard such good things about it that I made the effort and was rewarded with a beautifully crafted tale packed with stunning martial arts action. About half of the audience during the screening I attended was Asian (some of whom were clearly Mandarin speakers), and it was very interesting to compare their reactions with those of the white (presumably British) audience. There were a number of sniggers from the British crowd during the first action sequence, and I distinctly remember hearing some people around me complaining that it was 'unrealistic' because they were 'flying'.
Apart from the desire to bash these people over the head for constantly talking during the film, it was probably the first time I gave any thought to the differing attitudes of Western and Eastern audiences (at least in the microcosm of the Showcase Cinema). While the British audiences seem to have no problem with Batman running around in a silly costume, or Superman flying, they scoffed at the weightless Kung Fu presented in Crouching Tiger. As someone who'd grown up watching a fairly wide variety of films, including fantasy martial arts, I was probably better prepared for those exploits. As far as I'm concerned the characters are no different to our own mythological heroes, be they historical ones like Perseus ( Clash of the Titans was a childhood favourite), or contemporary ones like the aforementioned Man of Steel.
Now I'm not trying to sound hip with the above, but it is illustrative of a number of comments I've heard from people who either disliked the film or flat-out refused to watch it after learning about the wire-assisted action scenes. If you fall into either of those camps I would urge you to take another (or first) look at Crouching Tiger with the same kind of approach that you would take to any Western hero movie. When you accept that the fantastical elements are only a small component of the film you will find that there is much more on offer. It explores themes of love, honour and duty, and was the film most responsible for rekindling my interest in Asian cinema as a whole. Without Crouching Tiger I would most likely have discounted films such as Hero, Battle Royale and Oldboy (to name just three), which will always guarantee the film a special place in my heart.
The 2.40:1 (1080/24p AVC) widescreen transfer is easily the best looking presentation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that I've seen, although to be fair my previous experience is limited to a theatrical screening and the original Asian DVD release. The print is much cleaner than the DVD release (at least the region three version) and the HD transfer is a clear step up in terms of clarity and fine detail. It's now possible to pick out the intricate decoration on the Green Destiny's blade more easily than ever before, and background details no longer appear fuzzy. With that said, don't expect the sort of razor-sharp clarity associated with the newest all-digital Blu-ray transfers, because Crouching Tiger has always looked a little soft.
Colours are both accurate and natural, whether the action is taking place in the harsh browns of a desert, or in the lush greens of a bamboo forest. It's not the brightest image I've ever seen, but shadow detail remains good throughout, which is important when you consider the number of action scenes that take place at night. Even on my LCD screen, which doesn't have the kind of black level performance offered by plasma and CRT, the action was easy to follow and a surprising amount of background detail was visible. There’s plenty of natural film grain and I didn’t spot any particularly obvious flaws—edge halos are not apparent, even in the screen captures, and the compression artefacts that blighted the DVD release are gone. Crouching Tiger really is a visual feast and this Blu-ray release offers a very cinematic picture that should please all but the most demanding of fans.
The disc's man soundtrack is a Mandarin Dolby TrueHD 5.1 affair, but there’s also an English dub if you feel like listening to some randoms butcher the dialogue. Obviously I went for the original language track for review purposes. Admittedly it’s been some time since I last played my DVD version of Crouching Tiger, but this new TrueHD track exceeded my expectations in almost every way. It manages to be both incredibly subtle and very powerful depending on the situation, drawing the listener in with the ambient sounds of Beijing’s bustling streets (complete with a particularly rambunctious cockerel crowing) before blasting the cobwebs from your head during the action scenes. Fidelity really is top-notch, with every sword clash sounding clearer than ever before. Bass isn't particularly ferocious, but every every punch is accompanied by a solid thud and the percussive elements of the score provide the subwoofer with a decent workout without overpowering the other elements.
The combination of ambient and discrete effects is most impressive during the fight sequences, where chirping crickets and flocking crows give way to deadly projectiles and leaping Wudang practitioners. One of my favourite elements of the mix is the hauntingly beautiful Tan Dun score, which perfectly balanced between the front and rear of the soundstage, creating a truly immersive experience. If I had one criticism to make it would be that the quality of the dialogue is a bit variable, but I believe this can be attributed to the difference between on-set and looped dialogue and it’s never unintelligible. All things considered this is a very impressive soundtrack. It might not have the dynamism of a contemporary action feature, but it is triumph of subtlety.
With this release Sony had a rare opportunity to use the original theatrical subtitles, but unfortunately they decided to stick with the 'dumbed down' subs used on virtually all DVD releases worldwide. The Blu-ray subs are considerably less elegant than the original subs, which were almost poetic at times. Although none of the subs have ever been completely accurate (Yù Jiāolóng has always been mistranslated as Jen Yu), the BD subs take things too far. Governor Yu becomes Chief Yu and May inexplicably becomes Sue, even though both of their names are correct in the credits. There are also a few words here and there that seem incongruous with eighteenth century China. Okay, so the subs aren't completely horrendous, but they are a missed opportunity.
Sony has assembled a modest collection of supplemental material for this Blu-ray release. I'm sure some of you reading this will be disappointed by the amount of extras on the disc, but to be fair they are on a par with most of the DVD releases. It would have been nice to get a new retrospective featurette or documentary, but I don't think that was ever on the cards given the relatively small market for a Mandarin-language film on Blu-ray. Still, what we do get is of reasonably high quality.
Commentary with Ang Lee and James Schamus: The director/writer commentary track is relaxed and very pleasant to listen to. Lee and Schamus have a good rapport and provide some valuable insights into the making of the film, particularly Lee, who contextualises the historical elements and generally provides a window into Chinese culture.
A Conversation with Michele Yeoh (13:50 SD): This is an interesting interview in which the star gets quite animated about the film and her role in it. She discusses her motivation for taking the part, her experiences working on the film, the differences between her character and her own personality, her injury, the stunt team, her co-stars and, of course, Ang Lee.
Unleashing the Dragon (20:47 SD): This is a fairly standard 'Making of' featurette and a completely new feature for me, being that it wasn't present on the region three release. The featurette contains a mixture of on-set and studio interviews with Ang Lee, writer James Schamus and cast members Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat. The featurette touches on the cast, choreography, score and thematic elements, and also includes a truncated version of Coco Lee's music video. Oddly, when film clips are shown the original theatrical subtitles are used, which makes the presence of the 'dumb' subs on the main feature even harder to swallow.
Photo Gallery (06:44 SD): As the title suggests, this animated photo gallery rounds off the traditional bonus material. It's fairly self-explanatory stuff and features a bunch of images from the film set to the Tan Dun score. It's worth watching once if only for the sublime music.
BD-Live: Unfortunately there's no value-added content for Crouching Tiger here, just the customary advertisements for other Sony titles. BD-Live should offer additional content for the film you've bought, not try to convince you to buy other films. This would have been an ideal place to add some of the content available on the region three disc, such as the Coco Lee music videos for 'A Love Before Time', rather than pump customers for more money. To use the current youth vernacular—fail.
It seems like I've been waiting for this release ever since I got my Blu-ray player. It was pushed back more times than I care to remember, but my patience has finally been rewarded with a disc that does the film justice. I was most impressed by the audio-visual elements (particularly the audio), and while the bonus material doesn't look good on paper, the commentary track is great and the featurettes are more informative than the usual fluff that accompanies most DVD and Blu-ray releases these days. In fact, the only real disappointment is the use of the dumbed-down subtitles rather than the more elegant originals, but even they aren't enough to severely hamper ones enjoyment of the film. I think it's fair to say that this one comes recommended!
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 12 years and over
Release Date: 6th January 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Mandarin, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Czech, Dolby Digital 5.1 Hungarian, Dolby Digital 5.1 Polish (VO), Dolby Digital 5.1 Russian (VO)
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Turkish
Extras: Commentary with Ang Lee and James Schamus, A Conversation with Michele Yeoh, Unleashing the Dragon, Photo Gallery, BD-Live
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Cheng Pei-pei
Genre: Action, Drama and Fantasy
Length: 120 minutes
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