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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Ang Lee's martial-arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is that rarest of turn-ons: a mythological romance that also puts substantial amounts of foot to ass — all without insulting your intelligence. It's chop-socky you can pick apart over lattes. To be sure, CTHD has been endlessly praised (and showered with Oscars) for its beauty, its lyricism, and its general tragi-romantic vibe. It's been called everything from "Titanic for smart people" to "Sense and Sensibility with martial arts," such is the ache and thrill it produces. On the surface, it's a gorgeous, convoluted Wuxia epic about two airborne warriors (Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat), a governor's daughter (Zhang Ziyi), a desert bandit (Chang Chen), and a master criminal (Pei-pei Cheng) fighting over magic swords and human beings and what have you while flying through the air and/or wearing various layers of disguise. But the lyricism of director Ang Lee's achievement really becomes impressive when one considers the sheer amount of tension he's so prettily exploring. Underneath all its formal beauty, Crouching Tiger is at war with itself on nearly every level. Its five principal characters all have differing agendas, and when they're not fighting each other in the improbably lush surroundings, they're fighting the stifling mores of the film's fantasy Ching Dynasty. But that's all navel-gazing fodder. What really counts here is that the all this tension serves to deliver an utterly unique visceral kick. Unlike many (if not most) Wuxia flicks, CTHD indulges its characters and themes to a surpassing degree — the degree one finds in, say, Ang Lee's previous films, which include Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. In keeping with Lee's pet themes, all the mayhem stems from one form or another of repression, impetuousness, and class resentment. And when characters do battle, the beautifully staged mayhem is informed by two things not commonly found in kung-fu fight scenes: thematic subtext and high-caliber acting. This is most notably true in the case of a stunning battle between Yeoh and Ziyi in a training gym — with a seasoned warrior pulling out weapon after weapon in an effort to reclaim a magic sword for her unrequited love. It doesn't hurt that the mayhem is choreographed by the legendary Yuen Wo Ping, an accomplished director in his own right. His collaboration with Ang Lee leads to some of the most queerly elegant wire-fu ever — climaxing in a dreamlike fight in (or atop) a bamboo forest, with dreamy, counterprogrammatic music to match. The movie alone makes this disc worth owning, of course, but the supplements on the Crouching Tiger DVD are disappointing — to the degree that one suspects a better "Special Edition" will arrive at some point down the road. Nearly every supplement here is either a tightly scripted piece of advertorial or (in the case of the jarringly jokey commentary track featuring Ang Lee and co-executive producer/co-screenwriter James Schamus) deeply annoying on some implacable level. Solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 (Mandarin, English) or Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, French), and English and French digital subtitles. Featurette, theatrical trailers, Michelle Yeoh interview, photo montage. Keep-case.
—Alexandra DuPont

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