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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 115 mins . M15+ . PAL


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Traffic is bad, let's take the river road.
This one has been a long time coming. It’s been six months since the r3 release and a few months since the results came in at the Oscars. It’s been the topic of many newsgroups and forums and the lead up to the Oscars had only heated things up. The very rare English r3 release has been the topic of many a thread on the popular aus.dvd newsgroup resulting in some pretty inflated prices.

More importantly, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has divided audiences and has provided an interesting external element to what looked to be a ‘Gladiator’ runaway.

Crouching Tiger is a ‘Wuxia’ genre picture where the final Chinese Qin Dynasty is romanticised by the acrobatic, balletic, gravity-defying fight sequences and the supernatural fighting abilities of heroes and villains alike. A relatively simplistic plot often hides a deep and multi-layered character study. The closest Western film in spirit is the blockbuster ‘The Matrix’ with which Crouching Tiger shares a fight choreographer, Yuen Wo Ping. Like ‘The Matrix’, the weapons are less deadly than they are in reality. Swordplay here does not mean limbs flying and gouts of blood.

Crouching Tiger carries with it an illustrious cast and crew. Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh will play the two seasoned leads. Ang Lee would direct. All three have substantial Western experience as well as an impressive native Asian back catalog. Taiwanese newcomer Zhang Zi Yi would carry most of the film being its core character. The score would be driven by Tan Dun and legendary cellist, Yo Yo Ma.

Great things were expected with a slew of awards from various peers and come Oscar time, Crouching Tiger did not disappoint taking out Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, Best Score and Best Art Direction.

The story is so simple it almost sounds funny in black and white. I am often reminded of ‘Star Wars’ and its seemingly ‘cardboard cutout’ characters that exhibit surprising depth. Chow Yun Fat is a seasoned swordsman of a noble warrior house. He wishes to retire and to do this he must give away his beloved sword to his wizened elder where it will become not a weapon, but a symbol. This sword is the mystical ‘Green Destiny’, a magical sword that imbues its owner with almost supernatural swordsmanship.

Michelle Yeoh is the female warrior who is Yun Fat’s counterpart. They both seek the sword that is to be the spiritual centre of this epic. Another symbol is Zi Yi’s precious comb that is the focus of a twenty minute flashback and a portent for the final scene.

‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ refers to a Chinese proverb where loosely, one that is powerful often hides his strength so that when offensive measures are needed, the attack seems out of proportion to his apparent strength.

Zhang Zi Yi is that hidden force in the body of beautiful young aristocrat. Her impetuous and fiery relationships contrasts with Yeoh’s and Yun Fat’s mature procrastination; and that is the what this film is about. The spectacular fight scenes and supernatural behaviour are secondary to the complex relationships between the four leads. Both male leads are suitably understated with the bulk of the acting load going to Yeoh and Zi Yi. It is a shame they did not win as much recognition as Yeoh certainly delivers some of her strongest work here, especially since her character is so reserved – almost too reserved. The script has a steady hold on Yun Fat and Yeoh yet allows their young counterparts to display a youthful arrogance and mischievous demeanour. There is a constant examination of the meaning of free will and personal freedom. Perhaps this restriction and apparent freedom is a deliberate plot contrast?

Zi Yi is especially tempestuous almost revelling in a complete freedom to do as she pleases. To her credit, she carries the film with an Oscar nominated performance that is all full of dark-eyed reckless abandon.

There is talk of both a prequel and sequel to this and the end seems vague enough to allow this. At first it looks rather tragic however it depends on how you interpret it. Its meaning been discussed as much as the contents of Pulp Fiction’s suitcase.


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skim rocks? Skim ourselves instead.
This is a bit of a rarity - a 2.35:1 Columbia Tristar release (they seem love 1:85.1!). I can’t think of another CTS DVD in 2.35:1 and like most of you, I have a lot of them.

This is a tough job for the compressionist. There are so many different elements; incredibly fast action sequences and slow but deliberate artistic pans; dark, detailed night sequences and bright deserts scenes and complex, detailed and colourful forest sequences. For the majority, it succeeds.

Colour and contrast are astounding. The PAL version is even more saturated and ‘eye popping’ than the NTSC versions. This is rather important in a film that has a generally drab look in certain places, especially the start. You’ll soon be getting a deluge of colour in the traditional costumes and as the film moves to exotic places.

Black levels and shadow quality outpaces the NTSC version. I felt the night sequences have much more clarity and detail. I was not pleased with the generally murky black levels of the r3 release. The r1 has fixed that to some degree but not as well as the r4 version we have. Even spots of light from lanterns do not cause any problems like blooming on the dark but detailed background.

A scene where I expected problems is the fight sequence at the rooftops of the bamboo forest. The NTSC version shows slight ‘gauze’ over the individual fronds of the bamboo trees. It’s just about all gone in the PAL release with an incredibly colourful with a deep emerald green and sharp presentation.

Close details are exceptional. You can see this in the face details of the characters. You’re often ‘in the face’ of the two female leads. The skin tones look right with Yeoh looking darker as the lightly tanned warrior caste swordswoman and the very pale, aristocratic pallor of Zhang Zi Yi.

There are flaws however. Most obvious is some heavy edge enhancement. This is isolated to the sequences shot in the Gobi desert near the Kahzahkstan border. While the landscape itself is stunningly beautiful and well presented, whenever the two characters step into frame and are bordered by the landscape or the sky, enhancement or ‘ringing’ can be seen. This is because the characters wear dark clothes and the sky is a very light blue and the landscape is a rich, contrasting earth. The original flaw is a distinct lack of sharpness and the compressionist tried to compensate by edge enhancement so you are trading one flaw for another. Many things, poor focus pulling to unsuitable stock could cause the original poor sharpness.

I would note that it’s not too distracting because for example, in one scene the two characters look wistfully into the beautiful distant mountain range and of course, so do you. However if you look as THEM instead of the focus of the scene, you’ll see what I’m talking about…

The lens is focussed on the distance so close objects lose definition as any photographer will tell you. You can fix it by closing the aperture but you lose light and increase exposure times. Well I’ll take poor focusing over edge enhancement.

There’s also minor flecks, slight grain and video noise here and there (again, mostly in the desert sequences) but it’s really not noticeable. The second problem is very slight aliasing on some of the repeated patterns on the landscape shots.

The subtitles are very readable although they tend to straddle the picture border. On two lines of text, I expect that widescreen TV owners would see the text bottom just slightly cut off. Fairly minor issues I'd expect.

Another winner in difficult circumstances from Sony Pictures DVD Center.


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This coffee tastes like mud! Serenity now!
Mandarin is the original language track. This is the one that would be the choice for purists and is the most seamless of the two tracks. There’s also a dubbed English track that is approved by the director and producer. Both tracks are 448k/s Dolby 5.1 and of quite excellent quality.

The difference between 384 and 448 is 2kHz – specifically 18kHz high roll off with 384 and 20kHz with 448 (yeah I had to look that up…)

This film needs it because of the extended use of treble in the fight sequences and the effective use of the Tan Dun traditional scoring instruments. The swords always sound distinct and they never sound like they were ‘added’ later in post.

The effects and panning are not of the standard of which you would normally associate with Columbia. The effects are there – they are just more subdued. A personal favourite is rain sequences – this has some but they do scream out ‘RAIN’ like other films. The flashing swords and flying spears do not swoosh around your surround setup like other films. Even the exceptional score is very much in the background except for the use of Taiko drums in the fight scenes. The limited LFE and rear use is a deliberate step to move it away from being an action movie and more into the characters. When they do make themselves known, you do notice it. I distinctly remember a scene where a shattered sword flies directly over your right shoulder…

Normally I’m an effects and bass freak however I feel that Ang Lee like Steven Soderbergh, has the artistic right to direct the audiences’ focus away from excessive surround activity and back into the story. Soderbergh in ‘Traffic’ also decided to force the viewers’ attention to the dialogue.

I have big problems with the English track. It’s makes a reasonable amount of sense and the lip syncing is superb but it’s hard to take Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh talk with such clipped, proper accents. They’re both English-speaking veterans as it were, so to me it looks very ‘obviously’ dubbed. Brother Fat tends to slur his English and speaks in an almost swaggering context and you know what Yeoh sounds like in Bond so it’s clear that it’s NOT THEM.

The actual content is quite poetic. This is because the script was written in English (by Schamus) and translated back to Chinese and the original used for the English track. I would note that the spoken English track conveys more of the director/screenwriters’ intent even though I may disagree with the execution. The subtitles seem almost abridged in contrast.

The story of the soundtrack is as convoluted as any in modern film history. The original r3 release has a Mandarin and English 5.1 track. It also had a Cantonese and Thai 2.0 track.

Around Oscar time, sales of r3 copies outside of the region came close to exceeding ‘legitimate’ r3 sales. In an shrewd move, CTHV Asia removed the English 5.1 track and subtitles to thwart English speaking audiences.

About six months later there would be a simultaneous r1/r2/r4 release. Except for a few changes, the releases would be fairly similar however all the 2.0 tracks are gone except for the French 2.0 track on the NTSC release. The PAL version can’t take that one as well as the higher space requirements of the transfer.

I’m a bit unhappy that they canned the Cantonese track as it’s quite well integrated and to me, sounds almost as natural as the Mandarin track especially since Yun Fat and Yeoh are native Cantonese speakers and I’m used to them speaking that way.

As a note, Cantonese is the standard in Hong Kong and parts of Southern China. Mandarin is the ‘official’ language of China and Taiwan. ‘Peking’ is Cantonese, ‘Beijing’ is Mandarin and that renaming was a part of the change in modern Chinese history. Outside of China, Cantonese is more popular especially here and in the US. There are enough differences that it’s almost like two separate languages. That is a why the Cantonese track is missed by expatriates.



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Damn those beans. Potent.
Pretty chockers. This one starts with Dolby City again. Others here have expressed their feelings about this ‘feature’ much more eloquently than I can.

Firstly, the menus are fully animated and they have unique introductory film clips and music for menus. They look very professional however two things; they slow down the access of the features and more annoyingly, they ‘spoil’ the movie if you’re a first timer. Incredibly there’s even a cut from the final scene!

There are four trailers – an international release and US internal trailer. The international release is sharply edited and gives away little. I would also note that there are many scenes in this trailer not used in the theatrical release. Ang Lee says the studio forced a cut to under 120 minutes and that a much longer ‘director’s cut’ may be forthcoming. The exact length of footage shot is somewhere in the vicinity of 180 minutes. It is a credit that the theatrical release looks so complete. That 180-minute director’s cut however…oh man…

The US trailer has the ‘big’ voiceover you’re used to that gives you a canned synopsis of the plot. I’m pretty sure the r3 only has the US trailer. There’s also a trailer for an obscure film ‘Not One Less’ and lastly, there’s a booming trailer in 448k/s 5.1 for ‘Vertical Limit’. Some idiot reviewed that one on this site a while back…

The sections that are most valuable are the 14 minute ‘Conversation with Michelle Yeoh’ and the 21 minute ‘Making Of: Unleasing the Dragon’.

The former has Michelle speaking directly to the camera almost looking like the Bond Girl she used to be. It’s the promotional spiel you’d expect however Yeoh comes off looking like the articulate, thoughtful actress you know she was back in her ‘debut’ ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’. Like me, she has problems reading Chinese as well, which caused her problems with scripting.

The ‘Making Of’ can be split into two sections. A 17 minute general ‘Making Of’ which has some of the cast and crew in a TV special type production. The last four minutes or so is an examination of the soundtrack and it includes commentary from composer Tan Dun and cellist Yo Yo Ma. Ok, it’s an effort to sell the soundtrack CD but the music is quite easy to listen to by itself even though it’s very subdued in the film. Yes, I have the soundtrack and it’s very good except for the Coco Lee pop songs… and speaking of that…

The r3 release replaces the 21-minute ‘Making Of…’ with two Coco Lee music videos – ‘A Love Before Time’ in English and Mandarin. That’s a good swap because the songs are incongruous with the rest of the instrumental track and the videos looks like something from Celine Dion – full of shots from the film, Coco lounging on a cardboard crescent moon and lots of fake stars and the fog machine on full tilt.

Fear not however Coco fans, an easter eggs of sorts will give you a double Coco fix. The English track has her singing the English version in the closing credits. So guess what happens in the Mandarin version? Yep, pretty cool no? Nice touch there Sony Classics. Excellent music fidelity in the two singles as well.

There’s a photomontage that’s done in a unique style. It’s a six and a half minute running slideshow backed by Tan Dun’s score. There’s a variety of candid, staged and publicity shots. It’s nice to not hit your ‘right’ cursor button a thousand times.

Ok, onto the commentary from director Ang Lee and executive producer/screenwriter James Schamus. This is a fairly lightweight commentary with Schamus trying very hard to egg on Ang Lee. There’s good insight into the some of the aspects especially the styling, camera angles, scoring and location. The wirework fight scenes are given fairly short shrift. Overall an entertaining track and you love all the ‘cheesy’ shots that you originally thought looked arty. They are having a bit too much fun.

A standard cast biography rounds things out.


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Hoowee!!! Who's bean eating beans out on the lake.
What can I say? It’s the best version available anywhere in the world. It is identical to the European release and half the price; same as the US version but in superior PAL.

The picture and sound is excellent, the extras are better than the original r3 release. Even the slicks look better although Chow Yun Fat still looks like Mr. Moonface. This one uses the dark American artwork while the r3 and the r1 uses the original pale yellow Asian artwork.

The only reasons the non r4 releases would look attractive is if you must have the Coco Lee videos or you really want the Cantonese or Thai (or even French!) tracks.

Oh yeah, you *may* get a 12 page ‘collectible booklet’ with your retail copy. That’s unconfirmed as yet because we only have a pre-production disc here but I doubt anyone really cares.

I’m giving it the ‘Gold’ award because this clearly is the best of its type and superior to other versions worldwide. The film, like the DVD, has its flaws but it’s hard to dwell on them too much with the film and DVD proving such superior productions. I’m a sucker for cinematography – I’m the sort who remembers the director and cinematographer and this one deserves its Oscar for that. It clearly is an extremely beautiful looking film with many scenes being direct lifts from Chinese artwork. I had a hard time choosing what scenes to capture and I didn’t want to present more swordfights so I left it to an art student to pick the scenes that best mirror what she studies and what inspired Ang Lee and Peter Pau (cinematographer) in the first place. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were suitably convinced.

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