"Make a wish, Lo."
-Jen, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
The cinema has always been a wonderful medium for witnessing the marvel of bodies in dexterous motion. In action films, little can compare with the grace of two actors engaged in deadly, desperate combat. What a wonderful gift it is, then, to have seen "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." "CTHD" is the kind of movie that puts everything (and everyone) else to shame. (After "CTHD," you'll have no excuse to watch "The Matrix" ever again. This is kung fu, that was kung phooey.)
In the film, master warrior Li Mu Bai (megastar Chow Yun-fat) vows to lay down his sword, the Green Destiny, after years of toiling in the Jianghu world of swordsmen and outlaws. He asks Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), his longtime friend, to take the sword to Beijing as a gift to an old friend, Sir Te (Lee-regular Lang Sihung).
In Beijing, Yu Shu Lien meets Jen (newcomer Zhang Ziyi, in a phenomenal, memorable, star-making performance), the daughter of a provincial governor. Jen and her family are guests at Sir Te's until she is married. However, Jen tells Yu Shu Lien about her desire to remain free, to love and to live as she pleases. She hates the fact that noblewomen can look forward to little except arranged marriages and a lifetime devoted to serving their husbands' families.
We get about fifteen minutes of leisurely exposition at the beginning of the film, atypical for something in this genre. Usually, a martial-arts flick opens with a big fight, but "CTHD" doesn't mind segueing slowly into its rich story.
Suddenly, though, the film bursts to life. A thief is seen stealing the Green Destiny from Sir Te's study, and the theft sets the rest of the film in motion. All of a sudden, a whole slew of characters show up in the commotion, including Li Mu Bai's old foe, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei, a veteran of Hong Kong martial arts flicks and the first to portray female warriors equal to their male counterparts). There is an extended flashback to the time when Jen was in the Gobi Desert and met her true love, a nomad named Lo (Chang Chen, a rising star from Taiwan). Heck, we even get two love stories in one movie.
The complex script is adapted from one in a series of novels written in the 1930s by Wang Du Lu. Co-writer James Schamus once described the arduous odyssey of first translating the plot synopsis from Chinese into English, then writing the script in English, and finally translating everything back into Chinese again for the dialogue. The talented screenwriters retained the richness of the layered narrative while making the progression of events clear to the audience. One does not need any prior experience with the Chinese language or culture to understand, and to feel, the swell of emotions in "CTHD."
The fight scenes are, in a word, tremendous. The actors do their own stunts, and they kick ass. They kick so much ass that, at the Cannes Film Festival in May, usually jaded film critics at the 8:00 AM screening actually stood up and applauded at the end of the first nocturnal courtyard fight. The actors aren't fighting as much as they are dancing with one another, and they even defy the laws of gravity when they end up, yes, "flying" over rooftops and trees.
One must keep in mind, however, that the fight sequences in "CTHD" are not mere set pieces designed to give audiences more bangs for their bucks. Rather, they express philosophical points: the warriors fight as if in celebration of the individual spirit, and the women fight as well as the men. Indeed, "CTHD" is the ultimate chick flick, an intelligent retort to the thudding stupidity of "Charlie's Angels." (Incidentally, Hong Kong martial arts expert Yuen Wo Ping, a celebrated filmmaker in his own right, did the choreography for this film, and his brother worked on "Charlie's Angels.")
There is a scene in "CTHD" where Jen takes on an entire tavern full of martial arts masters. This sequence is Lee's nod to the genre's tradition of the "barroom brawl." One by one, Jen beats down her opponents. In the process, she demolishes the restaurant for good measure. When a monk demands to know her name, Jen replies with a mini-epic poem that gives her mythical stature. Zhang Ziyi's perfect Beijing accent liltingly captures the beauty of spoken Mandarin (sorry, this is the one place where the subtitles can't capture the musical eloquence of the language). By turns witty, comical, and literary, the five-minute moment is a delightful marriage of word and image.
In contrast, "Charlie's Angels" has a similar scene that offers nothing to the viewer. Drew Barrymore also takes on a roomful of bad guys, but rather than saying anything with literary heft, she declares each of her fighting stances and ends with "And that's kicking your ass!" It was offensive, to say the least, having to sit through that dreary bombast.
While Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh headline the cast, the film really belongs to Zhang Ziyi. She manages to make us care about Jen's spirited rebellion and coming of age story without making the character annoyingly petulant. Zhang makes great use of her youthful features, at first luring then honestly earning our sympathies. Hers is, by far, the best performance of the year, male or female.
Director Ang Lee said that making "CTHD" is the fulfillment of his childhood fantasies--having grown up in Taiwan, he voraciously read as many "wuxia" (martial arts) novels as he could. In contemporary Western cultures, we have become accustomed to our kids emulating the tough-guy coolness of literary and cinematic bad guys such as gangsters and hoodlums (no one pretends to be Sherlock Holmes or Sir Lancelot in this day and age). Yet, in Eastern societies, children still cling to tales of heroic derring-do and imagine themselves to be righteous warriors defending the moral health of the land. The "wuxia" world still plays an important part in Chinese culture as evidenced by the steady diet of "wuxia" novels and movies streaming out of Southeast Asia. After gaining attention for acclaimed English-language features such as "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm," Lee felt that the time was ripe for him to "return to his roots." (Note: Lee directed every one of the films for which Taiwan received Best Foreign Film nominations--"The Wedding Banquet," "Eat Drink Man Woman," and "CTHD").
There have been some gripes from a few quarters that "CTHD" is not a "pure" endeavor, that it is too Westernized and inauthentic compared to previous martial-arts films. After all, neither Chow Yun-fat nor Zhang Ziyi knew any martial arts before making the movie. Chow and Yeoh's accents are readily noticeable by native speakers of Mandarin, and Yeoh actually doesn't even read Chinese (her first language being English, she learned her dialogue phonetically). Heck, the actors are from all over the place: Chow, Hong Kong; Yeoh, Malaysia; Zhang, mainland China; Chang, Taiwan. And, although composer Tan Dun and cellist Yo-yo Ma are both Chinese, the music that they bring to the film comes courtesy of Western instruments. In a sense, these are legitimate concerns.
The thing is, pointing out such trivia means missing the boat on the film. The entire course of Chinese history encompasses so many different paths, dreams, talents, and futures. By gathering collaborators from all across the globe, Ang Lee has made a declarative statement for Chinese cinema, one that stands as a glorious culmination and celebration of 5,000 years of Chinese culture. Sure, "CTHD" is a movie with clanging swords, but it's not just about the fight scenes. By the time Jen says, "Make a wish, Lo," you'll have gone through one of the most extraordinary silver screen journeys in years.
"CTHD" is not only the best film of 2000, it is also one of the finest films ever made.
Sony's Columbia handles "CTHD's" DVD release, so I expected an excellent transfer of the video elements. Imagine my surprise, then, to find less-than-perfect video on display on my TV. The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) print looks solid, smooth, and even gorgeous at times (it IS a recent film, after all), but are digital specks that pop up repeatedly throughout the feature. Film grain has been kept to a minimum, and the colors are always strong, vibrant, and "alive" (the Gobi desert sequence). However, those specks will jump out at you constantly, and the transfer is simply not as good as it could've been.
The audio options on the disc include Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin Chinese, Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surround English, and Dolby Digital 2.0 surround French. I've listened to good dubs ("Das Boot," "Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040"), and I've listened to bad dubs. The English dub is among the worst that I've heard--the voice actors affect these atrocious accents, and I find the English tracks to be rather offensive. The key to doing dubs is to have the actors speak accent-less, like on the FRENCH dub of this film. The French voices don't try to sound "Asian," resulting in a cleaner presentation of the spoken material.
Aside from the language issue, the soundtracks, especially the 5.1s, are immersive and explosive. While there are no earth-shaking explosions, the percussive orchestral score by Tan Dun (an Oscar-winner, deservedly so) gives your subwoofer quite a workout. As there are many things flying around in the film, the audio effects do some flying of their own, hitting the rear channels quite often. The sound design is not as subtle as some other elegant films, but what you get here is far above average.
There are defeatable English and French subtitles, with the subtitles appearing in the black bar beneath the picture (they will intrude slightly into the picture on 16x9 monitors). I was sorely disappointed that Sony did not include their usual smattering of Chinese, Korean, Thai, Spanish, and Portugese subtitles on this release, especially considering the fact that many Chinese-speaking consumers will buy this disc. Once again, allow me to use this review as an opportunity to reiterate the need for studios to have the courtesy of including subtitles for EVERY language track.
Ang Lee and James Schamus (he co-wrote the screenplay, co-wrote the song "A Love Before Time," and co-executive produced the film) contribute a commentary track. Longtime friends, Lee and Schamus have a playful time remniscing about the film's production and their motivations. However, as the two have such fun, the don't get too insightful or informative, and Yuen Wo Ping's contributions in choreographing the film's action sequences seems a bit lost amidst the jolly banter.
Cable channel Bravo scheduled a "making of" featurette on TV around the time of the film's release, and that short piece, "Unleashing the Dragon," is on the disc. The piece is comprised mainly of talking-heads-interviews, and I enjoyed hearing the informative (and informed) anecdotes of Chow Yun-fat and Ang Lee. However, as these shows are wont to be, the featurette is a fluff piece designed to get audiences into movie theaters. Look, if someone went through the trouble of buying or renting the disc, they don't need to be sold on the film repeatedly.
Much better is the "Conversation with Michelle Yeoh" featurette. Miss Yeoh talks at length about her experiences while making "CTHD," and she explains much of the film's philosophies as well as how she approaches her craft. This is a good interview, and I wish that they had included something longer along the lines of the Criterion "Spartacus" and its 1992 interview with Peter Ustinov.
To round out the disc, there are two trailers as well as a photo montage set to the film's music. I wish that Sony had included more trailers and some TV spots to give viewers a feel for how the marketing of a film evolves during the course of its pre-release and release periods.
DVD-ROM users are given the option of linking to the film's website upon insertion of the disc, but that's it as far as DVD-ROM content goes.
I think that Sony/Columbia got a little lazy with this release of "CHTD." The disc was rushed out for Asian markets as early as six months before the release of the American version, and the Region 1 DVD's selection of extras has not been beefed up despite the film's extraordinary success at the Oscars in March. I mean, even the "Filmographies" section is not as up-to-date as it should be. They even dropped the Coco Lee music video(s) for the song "A Time Before Love." Finally, through and through, Zhang Ziyi is the star of the film, yet she gets the shaft when it comes to the disc's extras (the photo montage is a lame substitute for an interview with this rising star).
While the DVD is not that spectacular, the film itself certainly is. "CTHD" won four Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score (pundits had predicted that the latter three would go to "Gladiator"). In all honesty, I think that the Academy Awards race was tighter than it should've been ("Gladiator," "CTHD," and "Traffic" went 5-4-4). "CTHD" is clearly a superior achievement in art. Along with last year's "Yi Yi" and the films of mainland China's Zhang Yimou, "CTHD" is a signifier of the glory of Chinese cinema.