'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' was first released on Blu-ray in July of 2009. At the time, the movie was only available exclusively as part of the 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers' box set. This was a big disappointment for viewers who may have only wanted to buy the first movie, or those who already owned the standalone editions of the other two. One year later, the studio has finally followed through with a standalone release for 'Crouching Tiger' as well.
The new Blu-ray is mostly identical to the previous disc contained in the box set. However, the standalone disc has been enabled for BD-Live and been granted one new bonus feature, discussed below. Portions of this article first appeared in our review of the earlier Blu-ray.
When it was released theatrically in 2000, 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' represented the first exposure most Western viewers ever had to the genre known as wuxia. Long a staple of Asian literature and cinema, wuxia stories mix elements of historical epic, martial arts action, and fantasy, in which characters can float through the air, walk on water, and perform all manner of amazing feats in defiance of the laws of physics and nature. Wuxia characters are like comic book superheroes rooted with a profound Buddhist philosophical bent.
A small handful of previous wuxia films, such as Jet Li's popular 'Once Upon a Time in China' series, had found a cult audience in the West. 'Crouching Tiger' was the first movie to introduce the genre to the mainstream. The film was a phenomenal success. It became the first foreign-language picture to gross over $100 million at the American box office, won four Oscars, and was nominated for several more. Ironically, the movie was less popular in Asia, especially China, where many audiences complained that it was too Western in structure and tone, too talky, and took too long to rev up to the action.
There's a reason for that. Taiwanese director Ang Lee's prior films, such as 'The Wedding Banquet' and the wonderful 'Eat Drink Man Woman', were intensely personal character dramas. After moving to the West, he continued that trend with the Jane Austen adaptation 'Sense and Sensibility' and the dysfunctional family drama 'The Ice Storm'. Returning East to make 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', he approached the material from a similar perspective, one more akin to art films than action movies. The story focuses first on its character dynamics, allowing the action to evolve naturally from that, rather than the other way around, as is usually the case.
Hong Kong action superstar Chow Yun-Fat trades his usual cop and gangster roles for his first martial arts epic. He stars as Li Mu Bai, a warrior monk and master of the secret Wudan mysticism. Upon his retirement from fighting, Li Mu Bai makes a journey to visit his former mentor, ostensibly to present his prized sword, the Green Destiny, as a gift. However, the real purpose of the trip is to see Shu Lien (the extraordinary Michelle Yeoh), the woman who could have been the love of his life. Unfortunately, soon after arriving, a young rival steals the Green Destiny, forcing Li Mu Bai to retrieve it as a matter of honor. In the process, he may finally discover a disciple worthy of passing down his experience and wisdom.
Taken literally, the "Give back my sword!" plot is a rather thin conceit for such an epic story. Of course, the sword should be viewed metaphorically, as a symbol for the life that Li Mu Bai wishes to put behind him. Before he can move on to the next phase of the life he wants to live, he must properly retire the weapon and teach his young protégé its true purpose and meaning.
Despite a lack of experience, Chow transitions smoothly into his first wuxia role. The unnerving sense of stillness he conveys in action is a weapon more dangerous than Li Mu Bai's missing sword. Michelle Yeoh, who brings a more extensive background in the genre, proves herself equally adept at the nuanced dramatic work. But the real breakout of the production is Zhang Ziyi, whose beauty and intensity deservedly propelled her into major stardom with this movie.
'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' is a lyrical blend of myth, romance, generational strife, melodrama, and fabulous displays of martial arts prowess. The movie was deliberately designed as a fusion of Eastern and Western storytelling traditions, both literary and cinematic. Its themes of repressed emotions and unrequited love are taken straight from the Jane Austen playbook. The director often describes it as, "Sense and Sensibility with kung-fu." The secret to its success is the skillful balance it strikes between such disparate parts. It is neither straight action movie nor straight art film. By blending these genres together, the film rises above them and pushes forth into something newer and better. This is a tremendously entertaining and stimulating movie, invigorated with the power and potential of cinema.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
As mentioned in the Introduction section to this review, the new standalone Blu-ray re-issue of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' is identical in most respects to the prior disc contained in the three-film box set with 'House of Flying Daggers' and 'Curse of the Golden Flower'. The Blu-ray's cover art uses the same poster image as the earlier disc, distinguished only by a new Sony Pictures Classics banner at the top. As before, the new disc itself has no artwork screened onto its surface.
However, the back of the Blu-ray case has been updated with corrected specs. The earlier disc packaging had a number of errors concerning the audio formats, subtitle options, and region coding. Those have been fixed here, and references have been added regarding the new audio commentary and BD-Live features. (See HD Bonus Content section below.) The layout, artwork, and even UPC code are otherwise the same.
In another small change, the previous Blu-ray automatically opened with one of Sony's annoying promos before the main menu. That has been removed here. The new disc goes straight to the menu.
As far as I can tell, video and audio quality are completely unchanged in any way from the earlier Blu-ray. That's perfectly fine with me; they were pretty great already. Unfortunately, the poor subtitles have not been fixed. They are also unchanged from the old disc.
In the commentary on the disc, director Ang Lee describes his desire to photograph the movie with a soft palette reminiscent of oil paintings. It should also be noted that the film had an extensive amount digital wire removal performed, in addition to quite a few CG visual effects. As a result, the picture has a patina of softness and isn't necessarily the sharpest video image you'll find in high definition. Nevertheless, the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (presented at the theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio) generally exhibits very good detail and texture. It has a nice film-like appearance, and is an unmistakable improvement over the heavily-filtered and electronically-sharpened picture on the Superbit DVD released back in 2001. The studio has also cleaned up most of the dirt and film damage that plagued prior video editions.
Mild film grain is present and appears to be accurately rendered. No overt Digital Noise Reduction or edge enhancement artifacts are visible. The color balance on the Blu-ray is a little different than the DVD, but neither stands out as more correct than the other without a definitive reference to judge against. The Blu-ray's colors are often quite striking, especially the rich greens of the bamboo forest.
Black levels are very deep. If anything, it seems that the studio has artificially tweaked the contrast, which leaves dark scenes too dark and crushes some shadow detail. Even so, the problem isn't too severe. This is a fine-looking transfer.
'Crouching Tiger' has always had a stunner of a soundtrack. The DTS option on the Superbit DVD has long been a go-to home theater audio demo. The Blu-ray does that one better with a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that handles both the quiet dialogue scenes and frenzied action with equal perfection. Tan Dun's musical score, driven heavily by pounding drums, is delivered with rich musicality and a considerable amount of auditory depth. Bass activity is crisp and reaches very low. At the high end, the piercing shriek of steel on steel is flawlessly reproduced without distortion. This soundtrack has tremendous clarity and dynamic range.
The fight scenes are nothing short of amazing. The sparring match between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi will make you recoil in your chair as swords slice through the air, their sounds extending outwards seemingly inches from your face. Surround action is surprisingly organic and restrained, not overtly showy. Directional effects always flow naturally without gimmicky ping-pong activity bouncing between speakers. And yet, when needed, swords swing and fists fly from every speaker in the house.
Sadly, the subtitles are positioned with one line in the movie picture and one in the letterbox bar, which will be a big problem for viewers with 2.35:1 projection screens. The English translation is noticeably different than and inferior to that used on the Superbit DVD (which was in turn carried over from the theatrical release). The new subtitles may be coherent, but overuse slang and contractions that feel very inappropriate to the formal settings and types of conversation in the movie. For example, early in the film, Shu Lien asks Li Mu Bai about his Wudan studies. In the original theatrical and DVD translation, he says: "I left the training early." On the Blu-ray, he says: "I broke it off."
Considering that the film was originally written in English by screenwriter James Schamus, and that he and director Ang Lee approved the theatrical subtitles and presumably know how they wanted the dialogue to come across, I have a hard time understanding why Sony commissioned another translation at all. The subtitles aren't so bad as to make the movie unwatchable, but needlessly lose much of the poetry in the dialogue.
Those viewers incapable of watching a movie and reading subtitles at the same time will be thrilled to learn that the disc also has a completely ridiculous English dub with even more simplified dialogue and hilariously poor voice acting. Not to be left out, there's one for French speakers as well.
The Blu-ray carries over the majority of bonus features from the initial DVD edition released back in 2001.
The disc also has some trailers for unrelated Sony properties.
'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' is a terrific movie, and the Blu-ray has excellent video and audio quality. Why it has taken Sony Pictures a year to release this movie on its own, outside the box set with the completely unrelated 'House of Flying Daggers' and 'Curse of the Golden Flower', I can't pretend to explain. However, I'm glad that the studio finally has. As a thank you for your patience, the new disc even offers a brand new audio commentary that's worth a listen. Since so little has changed, I doubt that viewers who already went ahead and bought the box set need to repurchase the title. For everyone else, this disc is very highly recommended.