“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” 4K remaster shines

Updated: Mar 26

4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS

An emotional performance by Chow Yun Fat as Master Li Mu Bai.




"CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON"


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital copy, 2000, PG-13 for martial arts violence and some sexuality; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu, YouTube (4K)


Best extra: An 80-minute retrospective documentary with new interviews with director Ang Lee, writer/executive producer James Schamus and editor Tim Squyres









BREATHTAKING. PASSIONATE. EXHILARATING. If there's a tribute that hasn't been used to describe "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" I haven't heard it. Ang Lee's epic merits them all, especially in its 4K rebirth.


Just don't call his Oscar winner a martial arts film. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 2001, winning for best foreign-language film, cinematography, art direction and original score, it still holds the record for the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American cinema.


True, fight sequences choreographed by the peerless Yuen Woo-Ping of the "Matrix" are never less than stunning, but they don't drive the story. This fable about mythical heroes in search of a legendary sword is defined by honor, loyalty and above all, love. And it thrives on the moving performances by Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen.


In his commentary recorded for the original DVD release, Lee ("Life of Pi," "Sense and Sensibility") says "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is the kind of story that enthralled him as a child. Based on a pre-World War II Chinese pulp fiction novel set during 18th century, it opens a door to another culture for most westerners. Unfortunately, the commentary in which Lee is joined by screenwriter/producer James Schamus, never quite clicks.


Chen Chang plays Lo 'Dark Cloud, a handsome and fearless thief who steals the precious ivory comb from Jen Yu.
Twenty-year-old Zhang Ziyi plays Jen Yu, the Governor’s daughter who is destined to an arranged marriage.


Fifteen years later, the director is more forthcoming in his interview with journalist Tasha R. Robinson. Lee provides a more complete picture of his vision and struggle to get the film made. Financing was a challenge. Budgeted for $12 million, it finished at $18 million. Although relatively cheap compared to most U.S. films, China's cinema at that time wasn't able to come up with the cash. Schamus became the film's salesman, canvassing possible financiers with a script outline and a note attached to the cover page: "Trust Me. Ang will do the most brilliant fighting scenes in the history of cinema."


Lee slowed down the fighting sequences for his western producers and audience. "It felt a little strange at the time," he tells Robinson. "The Hong Kong-style was a lot more dazzling with quicker cuts and pacing." He also recalls his gamble hiring the 20-year-old Zhang Ziyi. She had only been in one film before, "The Road Home." What sold him was her look. "She had the easiest face to photograph."


From a 2001 interview, Michelle Yeoh tells how Lee pitched "Crouching Tiger" as an Asian version of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility"; it wasn't going to be "another testosterone-driven martial arts film." Yeoh, who wanted to expand her career beyond action films, got her start in the 1980s co-starring with Jackie Chan. She grew up in West Malaysia and spoke English, but couldn't read Chinese. She knew Mandarin conversationally but was helpless beyond that. Tirelessly, she memorized her lines. Then, during filming, she blew out her knee, forcing her to leave China for surgery in the U.S. Six weeks later she was back and wearing a brace, which had to be hidden during filming. "Accidents happen. It wasn't a difficult stunt. I had done the jumping kick 50, 60 times a day," she recalls, relating the incident in which her leg got tangled up with a stuntman.

Award-winning cinematographer Peter Pau filmed this location near Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. The panoramic framing is similar to David Lean masterpiece "Lawrence of Arabia."

VIDEO

The new stars of this unofficial 15th-anniversary edition are the folks at Sony's 4K remastering house. Color accuracy is balanced and sharpness enhanced giving the enclosed Blu-ray a great bump in quality. Still, the winner is the 4K disc with its added resolution and visual detail. Colors are richer and more textured, especially in the gorgeous costumes, a product of the expanded HDR. I got goosebumps at the 57-minute mark during a scene shot by award-winning cinematographer Peter Pau on location near Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. It has the panoramic visual framing of David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia." Here, Yeoh's rebel Yu Shu Lien ambushes the headstrong governor's daughter Zhang Ziyi, taking her ivory comb. There are dozens of edits and camera setups, from wide shots to close-ups, all assembled to make this scene a standout in my 4K reference playbook.


You will notice film grain is slightly larger than normal, a product of filming on Super 35. It was the popular format of choice for top directors such as James Cameron and Ron Howard in the 1980s through the early 2000s. The process gave filmmakers the visual flexibility to present super-widescreen imagery in theaters, while preserving the majority of the horizontal framing for home viewing on square-shaped TVs or VHS.


Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) have romantic feelings for one another that they cannot act upon. The subtitles are too large and domain the screen.


AUDIO

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack lifts the organic, Oscar-winning score from composer Tan Dun, which features a commanding drum beat and sweeping cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma. This soundstage has never been so clear and expansive.

Unfortunately, Sony's subtitles are a nuisance; they're just too large, overtaking the bottom of the frame. The good news is the hokey westernized English translation has been replaced by a better, smarter version.


If you're looking for a true film-like cinematic watch on your new 4K setup, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" must top your list.


― Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer



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