One of the things that came to mind while I was watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the fun and entertainment in revisiting it again. The films that have employed wire work as part of an action sequence have ranged from the ridiculous to the fairly entertaining, but Ang Lee's ode to 19th century China remains as breathtaking now as it did when it was released a decade ago.
Based on the book from Du Lu Wang, Chow Yun-Fat (Hard Boiled) plays Li Mu Bai, an accomplished swordsman and fighter who has returned from his latest journey. He meets Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, Memoirs of a Geisha), who is a longtime friend. Li asks Yu to transport a mystical weapon called "The Sword of Green Destiny" for a friend, as Li does not want to use the sword any longer. When the sword has reached its destination, Yu bumps into Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi, House of Flying Daggers), who is engaged to be married. The sword is stolen by a longtime foe who murdered Li's master, and the quest begins for Li to both recover the sword and avenge his master's death.
I mentioned earlier the action stunts and wire work helmed by Yuen Wo-Ping, and the actors performing it do it with such relative ease set against the breathtaking Chinese backdrops that anything else before or since would attempt to accomplish. And Lee is so devoted to the material that the film feels so authentic and genuine that re-introducing the public to the "kung-fu" film, if you will, is a gentler trip than other directors could pull off.
If helps that the main characters turn in exemplary performances. Chow cut his teeth on the John Woo Hong Kong action films of the '80s, and his performance as Li, an aging warrior looking to take a step back from his profession of many years, is almost similar to Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven in that both have the desire to engage in needless battle anymore. Eastwood's reluctance is a bit more pronounced, but the brashness of youth has disappeared from both. It's a quietly deep performance. Just as good is Ziyi as Jen. Her impending marriage is arranged, and she has been yearning for a grander life of adventure, even if it means engaging in some bad behavior. It makes her interactions with Yu all the more interesting. Yu's seen what the adventure's been like, now she wants a quieter life for herself, possibly with Li.
It's this conflict within Yu that makes Yeoh's performance the best of the bunch. As both he and lee say in the supplements, there was never any doubt that she could handle the physical nature of the role; one could even say she's one of the best actresses at handling a physically demanding role. But it's her ability to see some of the same things in Jen that she saw in herself growing up, and she finds an instant kinship with her, even after she finds out Jen's true motivations and actions. There is as much (if not more) substance in Yeoh's performance as there is in Chow's.
This is a credit to Lee inspiring her and other members in the cast to do well. There are lots of high-flying action films that have the ability to dazzle; few of them can keep you coming back like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can. The performances and direction are outstanding, and the wire work is playing with house money when it comes to this engaging dramatic story that is told well.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The AVC-encoded 2.40:1 high-definition presentation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon appears to be the same transfer included in the boxset released a little more than a year ago, and at a lazy glance the same one found in the UK Steelbook that was released around the same time. It's not a knock by any means, as it's an impressive one. Exteriors are given lots of detail and dimension, tighter images have their own level of detail with large swipes of DNR applied to them, and blacks look solid. Everything presented in Lee's vision is reproduced accurately and without complaint, as you'd expect from one of Sony's old Superbit catalog titles.
Your choice of Chinese, English or French Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround tracks, regardless of which version you have. The soundtrack sounds excellent, dialogue sounding balanced in the center channel and directional effect placement in abundance. Whether it's the sound of fighting panning from front to rear or even something as subtle as insects making noise in the evening (or trees moving from the breeze), the soundstage has ample opportunity to get a workout, with the subwoofer picking up the low-end only when necessary.
There is a new extra different from the boxset, a commentary from Director of Photography Peter Pau. He talks about his first meeting with Lee and what he attempted to accomplish in realizing Lee's vision. He recalls his interactions with Lee and shares his thoughts on the director too. Pau says early on that the bulk of his track is going to be more technical, focusing on things such as the lighting and/or practical shooting of a scene. He is pretty active throughout the track and is worth listening to for devotees of the feature.
Everything else from a bonus perspective is the same; you get the commentary with Lee and Schamus, and the friends discuss the making of the movie while Lee talks about some of the historical context of a scene, costume or weapon. They even spend time talking about the fighting styles in the film! It's an enjoyable track and you learn a bit from the production. "Unleashing the Dragon" (20:47) is a making of look at the film, where Lee covers his inspirations for making the picture and his thoughts on the cast and crew. The wire work and martial arts in the film are touched on, as well as the locations and music in it too. Solid stuff here. "A Conversation With Michelle Yeoh" (13:50) includes the actress' thoughts on how she approached the production and how it's different from her other roles. A photo gallery is next (6:44), set to music from the film, and trailers for The Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers, Nine, The Young Victoria, Not the Messiah, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Karate Kid remake complete the disc.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is as fun now as it was a decade ago, and on Blu-ray it manages to remain formidable technically while improving itself in the extras category. If you've got the boxset (or steelbook), you're only paying for the new commentary track, but if you've done neither, don't hesitate to add this to your library.