[box cover]

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat, Zhang Ziyi,
Chang Chen, and Pei-pei Cheng

Written by Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jung
Based on the book by Wang Du Lu

Directed by Ang Lee

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

"In the past, some of the period films that I've done — like Tai Chi Master or Wing Chun — the focus was more on the action, rather than all these stories, the emotional side, the self-sacrificing — you know, all those very in-depth feelings that are so apparent in these kinds of myths. But here in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang has brought out the very lyrical, the very romantic, and at the same time the very powerful martial arts that it needs to have."

— Michelle Yeoh

"Daoist philosophy was both the greatest enemy for this story and the greatest nourishment for it, too."

— James Schamus, CTHD co-executive producer
and co-screenwriter

"Crouching Tiger is almost the first chick-flick action film — actually Deep Impact was, but that's another story.... The action invariably stops so that the girl characters can 'examine their feelings.' None of the fight scenes is resolved — girls so like to go on to fight about the same thing another day. The only male dies. With all its sharing of feelings and irresolution, it's the first psychobabble action film."

— My little brother Maximillian

*          *          *

I. Introduction

What I love about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is that all three of the above introductory quotes (even Max's gender-insensitive rant) can be argued with varying degrees of passion. The movie transcends its wire-fu epic conventions and emerges as a faceted thing — 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. But for me, the lyricism of director Ang Lee's achievement really becomes impressive when you consider 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. The characters all have differing agendas, and when they're not fighting each other, they're fighting the stifling mores of the film's fantasy Ching Dynasty. Duty conflicts with love — and when it doesn't, vengeance conflicts with love. The fast-and-furious action (which, as Max points out, seldom brings closure) is in conflict with the lush surroundings. The Daoist grace of the heroic Wudan warriors is in conflict with the Giang Hu "kill or be killed" philosophy of the villains — which perhaps mirrors the East/West tension that informs CTHD's dramatic structure and even its musical score (which after all features the Eastern instrumentation of Tan Dun interwoven with the classically trained cello of Yo-Yo Ma).

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. 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.

(By the way, if you don't want to read yet another gushing review, do please skip ahead to the section devoted to the extras. I have a few unkind things to say there.)

II. What's the story?

Well, it's complicated. Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Eat Drink Man Woman) — working with a team of Eastern and Western screenwriters — has compressed the latter sections of Wang Du Lu's five-part novel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon into two densely plotted hours. The result is something of a structural oddity — e.g., the movie plops a 20-minute flashback right in the middle of a dramatic lovers' reunion — so perhaps the best way to approach the story is to describe its five principal characters:

  1. Yi Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, never better) is the closest thing the Ching Dynasty has to a liberated woman — she's a duty-bound warrior of supernatural skill who can skip lightly from rooftop to rooftop (thanks to the digitally removed efforts of Yuen Wo Ping's wire stunt team). Although honor and hesitation keep her from doing much about it, Lien is in love with ....

  2. ... Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat, in his first martial-arts role and oozing gravitas) — a flying Wudan swordsman who seems like he's just about to declare his love for Lien, except that he's continually distracted by (a) the need to avenge his former master's death and (b) the desire to make a disciple out of the thief who stole his magic sword, that thief being ...

  3. ... Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the film's fulcrum character — a governor's daughter rocketing toward an arranged marriage. Jen is something of a talented flake: She was secretly trained in the Wudan way and can fly around like Li Mu Bai and Yi Shu Lien, but for the moment she uses these skills to steal magic swords for kicks and lay waste to countryside taverns.

    (Parenthetically: I love that Jen — though clearly a protagonist — is also quite a narcissistic twit, destroying the lives of her more conventional mentors in the name of "personal freedom." [She's Kate Winslet to Michelle Yeoh's Emma Thomspon, if you will.] Had this movie been made in Hollywood, I suspect she'd have been a far more sympathetic — and uninteresting — heroine surrounded by stuffed-shirt adults. But in the Confucianist East, even in the movies, adults are regarded with a bit more nuance and respect.)

    Anyhoo. Complicating Jen's impending nuptials is ...

  4. ... Lo (Chang Chen), the desert bandit Jen fell in love with after he raided her entourage. Lo wants Jen to come back to the desert and live with him — but to possess her, he has to compete with Li Mu Bai's desire to instruct her and the more sinister intentions of ...

  5. ... Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng) — the illiterate master criminal who trained Jen and killed Li Mu Bai's master. Ms. Fox resents the Wudan for not training women, and resents Jen for surpassing her. There are at least a couple of people she'd like to kill.

As these five interact in increasingly tragic circumstances, swords are stolen, loyalties are shaken, lives are taken, and hearts are broken. As you can see, it all gets a bit thick — which is very much in keeping with the heavily plotted Wuxia epics Ang Lee is honoring with this movie.

III. However

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 movies. In keeping with Lee's pet themes, all the above 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 Lien and Jen in a training gym — with the seasoned warrior pulling out weapon after weapon in an effort to reclaim the magic sword for her unrequited love. (Yes, the sword-as-phallic-symbol imagery runs rampant here; Ang Lee actually has a pretty good laugh about that on the DVD's commentary track.)

IV. That said

A brainy kung-fu flick is still a kung-fu flick — so it doesn't hurt that the mayhem is choreographed by the legendary Yuen Wo Ping, an accomplished director in his own right. It's rumored that Wo Ping and Ang had conflicting on-set philosophies, but their creative synthesis leads to some of the most queerly elegant wire-fu ever — climaxing in a dreamlike fight in (or, should I say, atop) a bamboo forest, with lazy, counterprogrammatic music to match.

V. So how about those extras already?

The movie alone makes this disc worth owning, of course, but I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that I'm more than a little disappointed by the extras on the Crouching Tiger DVD — to the degree that I'll wager a two-disc deluxe edition is already in Columbia-Tristar Home Entertainment's long-range plans. (One telling clue fueling my suspicion is the fact that this DVD's packaging isn't festooned with any sort of "Special Edition" or "Collector's Edition" label.) Anyway, nearly every supplement here is either a tightly scripted piece of advertorial or deeply annoying on some implacable level.

Let's start with the most grievous offender: the commentary track featuring Ang Lee and co-executive producer/co-screenwriter James Schamus. It's a jarringly jokey affair, thanks entirely to the dorky, attention-hogging antics of Schamus.

Now, I've never met Schamus — and I certainly won't begrudge the man his talent or his commitment to producing this picture. But because of a well-intentioned desire to bring levity to the proceedings (or a sinister desire to gain some sort of Hollywood-y social advantage over Ang Lee), Schamus spends much of the Crouching Tiger commentary cracking wise and belittling the movie at every turn. Among his finer moments:

  1. James Schamus opening the track by saying, "Six minutes of dialogue with two people sitting in a room — now that's the way to start an action movie!"

  2. Ang Lee mentioning the two months of embroidery that went into one of Jen's ceremonial dresses, to which James Schamus replies, "And I've never noticed it" — only to follow up with a witty comparison of Chow Yun-Fat's costume to a pair of pajamas (which inadvertently evokes some Coolie-era cultural elitism);

  3. James Schamus making such astute observations as "Michelle looks very wistful here," and actually asking whether Ang Lee designed the centuries-old martial-arts weapons;

  4. James Schamus picking needlessly at a bit of background action that's visible for about three seconds, saying: "And the usual lousy background action. Sorry. Some things will just always bug me. Those two guys fighting back there — what is that? What were you thinking?" His question goes unanswered.

  5. James Schamus bitching about the art department over the rendering of Jade Fox on a poster;

  6. James Schamus making fun of Ang Lee for exploring his pet themes in the film, going so far as to mockingly say, "I'm repressed — I'm in an Ang Lee movie!" and pointing out some apparent foot-fetish imagery;

  7. And, worst of all, James Schamus making fun of the action scenes and dialogue — calling Jen and Lo's horseback chase/courtship "boring" and "fake," a close-up of Jen floating through bamboo fields "cheesy," and, after Ang Lee describes how grueling the film's tragic death scene was to shoot, saying, "For me, it was gut-wrenching to actually write a line like 'With my last breath, I want to say "I love you."' I mean, I have some self-respect." Rather too much, to my thinking.

Somehow, amid all the appalling wisecracks, a few interesting bits filter through. In mildly shaky English, Ang Lee talks about the many film references and martial-arts clichés he just had to incorporate into CTHD; he briefly explores the culture of the Ching Dynasty and the myths that inform the film; and both men discuss the tensions of the joint East/West production as well as the bizarre financing, the rigorous genius of Yuen Wo Ping, the film's cultural anachronisms (basically, Lee says, any blunt discussion about relationships in the movie would never have happened in real life), and their interpretation of the movie's enigmatic ending (they call it a "liberating" Daoist expression, which is rather more uplifting than my take).

Compared to the blistering annoyance of the commentary (which I would have shut off after 10 minutes were it not for this journalistic assignment), the rest of the extras are positively tranquil. But they're also a bit self-serving.

The "Bravo Making-of Special: Unleashing Dragons", produced and directed by Christian Barcellos, is 20:44 of barely-disguised advertorial for the film. Still, it's worthwhile for Ang Lee's self-effacing discussions of the Wuxia films he grew up with, plus Chow Yun-Fat (whom Ang gushingly declares "gorgeous") cracking up as he recounts the difficulties of engaging in swordplay while trying to remember his lines. One comes away impressed with the unpretentious professionalism of the Asian cast and crew — but wishing that the doc had the guts to explore the rumored tension between Ang Lee and Yuen Wo Ping (Wo Ping is conspicuously absent from the DVD's extras, BTW, save in the many behind-the-scenes shots of his wire stunt team at work). Oh, and if I may pick on Mr. James Schamus a bit more: He wears a pretentious bow tie in his sound bites here, takes credit for convincing Ang Lee to hire Zhang Ziyi and declares that CTHD "has the chance to become the first worldwide hit to come out of Asia" — which leads one to wonder whether Schamus was in some sort of cryogenic stasis during the 1990s, when Jackie Chan was gleefully taking our planet by storm.

Moving along, we find a 13:48 "Conversation with Michelle Yeoh" that's pretty obviously taken from an Electronic Press Kit (Face turned 35 degrees off center to the viewer's right? Framing starting at high chest level? Movie poster in the background? Warm lighting? Check!). It's punctuated by relevant action clips and behind-the-scenes shots and of course the lovely and intelligent and apparently fiercely driven Ms. Yeoh — who speaks in cultured English about her careerism, her respect for Ang Lee, her Crouching Tiger-catalyzed ACL injury (sustained during a relatively easy stunt, natch), the differences between a "modern woman" such as herself and her repressed Ching Dynasty character, Chow Yun-Fat's acting skill, the challenge of learning her lines in Mandarin (which she barely speaks), her love of the action genre, and the fact that she and Chow are petitioning Ang to make a prequel that incorporates the earlier bits of the Crouching Tiger novel, which apparently boast considerable Li Mu Bai/Yu Shu Lien backstory.

As for the remainder of the extras: There's a non-navigable, 6:43 "Photo Montage" of production stills and behind-the-scenes shots; over the gorgeous soundbed of Tan Dun's soundtrack, the camera slowly drifts across the photos in a decidedly Ken Burns-esque manner. (The last shot, BTW, is of Chang Chen — romantic bandit warrior — in curlers on the set.) Then there are selected filmographies for Ang Lee, Chow-Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, James Schamus, and Yuen Wo Ping. And finally, we find American and international theatrical trailers, each 1:23 in length. Annoyingly, the American version is pan-and-scan, and it's not the explicitly narrated trailer I always saw in theaters (and on my Total Movie DVD). But I'll never be looking at these pallid extras again, so who cares?

Oh, and one final note about the language tracks: This DVD presents you, for the first time, with an opportunity to watch Crouching Tiger dubbed — and dubbed about as well as those Miramax repackagings of Jackie Chan movies — in English. But I'd argue that it's better if you go with the subtitles; the film's poetry seems a lot less ... artificial when it's printed at the bottom of the screen and not spoken by second-tier voice talent.

Anyway. You have been warned. I'm betting heavily on an eventual two-disc "Special Edition."

— Alexandra DuPont

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