Is it possible to improve on what’s considered perfection?
That is what Sony Pictures Classics seeks to answer with its 4K restoration of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in theaters this month. The release of the groundbreaking 2000 film comes at an advantageous time. Michelle Yeoh, the co-lead of Crouching Tiger, is a front-runner to win the Best Actress Oscar for Everything Everywhere All at Once. (She would be the first East Asian actress, and second person of color, to win in the category.) EEAAO is part of surging Western mainstream interest in art that centers East Asian experiences, including Parasite, Squid Game, and Crazy Rich Asians. It is the perfect environment to re-appraise, or re-introduce to younger audiences, one of the most critically and commercially successful examples of such art.
But what of this version, remastered for our ultra-high-definition big and small screens? Might we lose something in translation, diminishing a film that cracked open the world nearly a quarter century ago?
The restored Crouching Tiger doesn’t just hold up well. It’s something few present filmmakers could match. (It’s an astounding reality given the film’s $17 million budget and the technological limits of the time.) The cinematography is lush, with gorgeously rendered and vibrant colors that retain their natural beauty. Nearly every frame is sharp and detailed, with a fullness and depth that draws you into the scene. It enhances and elevates every scene, especially the legendary martial arts sequences. Lee’s graceful camera movements and thoughtful spatial awareness are all emboldened here, firmly orienting us in the tightly-choreographed moments, even in the low light of the nighttime battle sequences. His warriors practically leap off the screen.
The renewed vibrance of the cinematography might not be surprising, but Crouching Tiger’s remastered sound is a revelation. Every sword clash and mad-dash step lands with a shattering impact in your ears. With its romantic blend of classic orchestration and Chinese instrumentation, Tan Dun’s Oscar-winning score is stunning and resonant. The overall sound design envelops you, making you feel like you’re in the deserts of the West or the city compounds of Peking. The sound’s pairing with the sharp imagery makes for a truly immersive cinematic experience, one of the year’s best. (Once again, Crouching Tiger was released in 2000.)
Crouching Tiger’s gorgeous restoration further enhances the story’s beauty. While ostensibly about the pursuit of a masked thief, the Wuxia film tenderly explores unrequited love and the rigid gender and societal expectations that keep people from their desires. You can’t deny the breathless thrill of clashing swords and floating warriors, but the quieter, intimate moments between Shu Lien (Yeoh), Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat), Jen (Zhang Ziyi), and Lo (Chang Chen) are just as powerful. Unspoken intimacies, tensions, and regrets charge those scenes, and their stunning visual clarity ensures you feel the emotional intensity behind the ornate dialogue. The film moves with an emphatic purpose, never losing momentum even when it expands on Jen and Lo’s star-crossed past in the desert. Every second serves the film’s insight into self-actualization, what it gives and takes from us.
If one frustration exists in watching Crouching Tiger today, it comes from our knowledge of the principal cast’s subsequent Hollywood careers. In hindsight, it’s outrageous that millions of people could see their performances and not demand more Hollywood projects with them as leads. Yeoh is particularly illuminating within the context of her current Oscar campaign. She carries Shu Lien’s reservation and resignation through her forceful, kinetic physicality, conveying an effortlessness that deepens how we perceive her repressed emotions. It further devastates when she gives a tentative voice to those feelings in her chemistry-rich conversations with Chow’s Mu Bai. Zhang, meanwhile, is a charismatic force, with her eyes pulling you into the measured and reckless machinations roiling in her head. When you see how incredible they are all together and apart, you can’t help but feel cheated that Hollywood’s prejudice wasted precious years of screentime we could’ve had.
The frustration is fair, but it isn’t the main takeaway from a restored Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What matters is that unique circumstances have allowed audiences to rediscover a triumph that rewrote the limits of cinematic achievement. If Sony released it in its original format, Ang Lee’s masterpiece would absolutely be worth a trip to the movies. The 4K upgrade, elevating perfection to transcendence, makes it one of the year’s essential theatrical experiences.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon returns to theaters nationwide restored in 4K beginning February 17, 2023 courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
The 4K upgrade, elevating perfection to transcendence, makes it one of the year’s essential theatrical experiences.
A late-stage millennial lover of most things related to pop culture. Becomes irrationally irritated by Oscar predictions that don’t come true.