Hard to believe it's been almost sixteen years since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) hit theaters, introducing legions of fans to Chinese wuxia films with its strong visual pedigree and stunning fight choreography by Yuen Wo Ping, who had worked on The Matrix a year earlier. Yours truly had no trouble enjoying this one in the theater, as anyone with functioning eyes and ears could easily become fully invested in the film's sweeping drama, kinetic action, and great performances from an attractive, charismatic cast...even if they couldn't exactly follow the entire plot the first time through. Honestly, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon only feels epic in scope: it's limited to only a handful of locations, and barely ten characters get more than a few lines of dialogue. Defying its low budget, this emotionally intimate tale carries all the hallmarks of an ambitious period piece...plus the added bonus of foreign flair designed to wow folks who really ought to travel more. In short, it's a real treat for the senses.
Again, the story is deceptively simple: in the late 18th century, skilled swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) entrusts a powerful sword to longtime warrior friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who will deliver it to their mutual friend Sir Te (Sihung Lung) in Beijing. While at Sir Te's compound, she meets Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi, in only her second major film role), who's betrothed to be married and the two quickly form something of a mother-daughter relationship. But disaster strikes one night as Sir Te's new sword---nicknamed "Green Destiny", a beautiful blade nearly four centuries old---is stolen by a masked thief who might be in league with Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), a mystic who fatally poisoned Li Mu Bai's master many years ago. Once a police inspector (Wang Deming) and mysterious stranger Lo (Chang Chen) get involved, the thief's true identity---as well as his or her motivation for stealing the Green Destiny---are revealed, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon deepens into more of a poetic, spiritually-driven drama.
As a younger man, it wasn't hard for me to get fully invested in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for its stunning locales, staggering action scenes, and the romantic fate of Lo and Jen that dominates the film's second half. The first two elements hold up more than 15 years later (at least more than the "wire-fu", which I was never a big fan of), yet I found myself much more interested in the fate of Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien this time around: they're simply more engaging characters, even though they're routinely pushed to the background in favor of their younger and (arguably) more attractive co-stars. That's not to say that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is best enjoyed by teenagers or twenty-somethings: this is very much a mature, layered drama, albeit one designed to appeal to a fairly wide audience. Of course, the fight choreography---which, to its credit, routinely pushes the story forward instead of filling time---and beautiful production design remain the film's most durable highlights, not to mention stunning cinematography by Peter Pau (whose filmography also includes The Killer and Bride of Chucky, somehow) and a memorable score by Tan Dun.
The point is that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was an important film for its time and still holds up well today, even if I don't like it for quite as many reasons now. A true feast for the senses, it's looked pretty good on home video through the years...and there's been a lot of releases, from Sony's 2001 DVD to a Superbit DVD the same year, several international editions, and a 2010 Blu-ray, just to name a few. Things get more complicated this year: in addition to this standard "Mastered in 4K" Blu-ray, we also get a "Supreme Cinema Series" edition (same disc, fancier packaging) and a UHD 4K release to choose from. I'm happy with this slimmed-down package, which serves up a mostly-terrific A/V presentation and plenty of old and new bonus features.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, this new 1080p transfer was sourced from a recent 4K master and looks very good with one mild reservation. The beautifully designed sets and lush natural landscapes display a striking amount of image detail, texture, and wonderfully saturated color, as do the costume designs and nicely framed close-up shots. Black levels and contrast are similarly good, with no apparent signs of crush during the frequent nighttime scenes. Though I don't have the older Blu-ray on hand for direct comparison, it's obvious that this represents the best that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has looked on the format...and unless you spring for the UHD 4K disc, the best it's looked on home video period. Unfortunately, this isn't a perfect transfer: I spotted motion blur and/or interlacing frames during at least a dozen very brief shots in several action scenes; most of these lasted 1-2 seconds apiece, for a total of maybe 25-30 seconds during the 120-minute film. Of course, this issue may not be noticeable unless you're really looking for it, and it doesn't affect well over 99% of the film...so I can't judge it too harshly. But it's definitely there and keeps Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from scoring what might otherwise be a perfect rating.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
The default Dolby Atmos audio track (which unfolds to a TrueHD 7.1 mix if your receiver doesn't support the format) adds more than enough weight to give Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a formidable presence from start to finish. Surround activity is frequent with strong channel separation, plenty of LFE punch, a strong dynamic range, and crystal-clear dialogue that's balanced fairly well for smaller home theater setups. English and French 5.1 dubs are also included during the main feature, as well as English, SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. Two more bits of good news: this disc utilizes the original English theatrical subtitles (unlike the previous Blu-ray, which had modified text) and all the extras have optional subtitles too...even the commentaries.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The disc interface is simply designed, well-organized, and looks great, similar to Sony's recent Labyrinth
Blu-ray. This one-disc release arrives in a standard keepcase with a matching slipcover and disc art; a Digital Copy
redemption slip is also tucked inside. The cover image is certainly...uh...interesting
. At least it's not a bunch of giant floating heads, right?
New to this release is a series of three separate Retrospective Interviews with director Ang Lee, writer/producer James Schamus, and editor Tim Squyres (81 minutes total, with optional introduction). Conducted by writer Tasha R. Robinson, these enjoyable and informative interviews cover a lot of ground: the film's development and reception, Ang Lee's body of work, the language barrier, production delays, appealing to Western and Eastern audiences, and much more. Each runs approximately 20-30 minutes, allowing the respective contributors enough time to get comfortable but not exhausted. Robinson seems well-prepared with plenty of accessible but layered questions, which gives these interviews a relatively broad appeal for new and seasoned fans alike; a handful of finished film clips, rehearsal footage, and other behind-the-scenes material are also sprinkled throughout.
Also new is a collection of six Deleted Scenes (7 minutes total), most of which offer little more than small scene extensions. They play well enough on their own...but it's obvious that an extended edition wouldn't have played any better, so I'm glad they're kept separate. A vintage "The Making of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" featurette (14 minutes), which doesn't appear to have been included on previous discs, provides a standard behind-the-scenes overview with short interviews and on-set footage. Last up are two Music Videos for Coco Lee's "A Love Before Time" (7 minutes total), one in English and another in Mandarin.
Carried over from the 2010 Blu-ray are two separate Audio Commentaries (one with director Ang Lee and writer/producer James Schamus, the other with cinematographer Peter Pau), a short but enjoyable Michelle Yeoh Featurette (14 minutes), and a self-playing Photo Gallery of behind-the-scenes pictures and promotional stills with background music from the film (7 minutes).
Missing in action is the 20-minute "Unleashing the Dragon" Bravo Channel mini-doc from Sony's earlier discs, although the included (but more promotional) vintage featurette serves as a decent enough substitute. Both the domestic and international trailers---one of which is promised on the packaging, even---are not included either, which is also a bit disappointing.
The sizable impact of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 16 years ago officially cemented director Ang Lee's status in mainstream pop culture, where the stylish drama racked up nearly a dozen Academy Award nominations and enjoyed box office success during its long theatrical run. Even so, I'm admittedly not among Crouching Tiger's biggest fans: its lead plot often feels like the least compelling element, and much of the wire-fu has always looked more like distracting CGI than fluid visual poetry. Yet the film's jaw-dropping production design, artful compositions, terrific acting, and stunning fight choreography are still a joy to watch, making this an unusual but entertaining diversion that I'd gladly digest every so often. Sony's new Blu-ray is an obvious step up from their own 2010 edition; aside from a few minor visual issues and two missing bonus features, this offers a notable upgrade in just about every department. It's Highly Recommended for die-hard fans of the film, but slightly less so for everyone else.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.