November 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  OST Cello Solos by Yo-Yo Ma
 SONY CLASSICAL SK-89347 [50:15]

[About running time: the promo review copy has two more tracks than the official listing for the commercially released version of the album. The song "A Love Before Time" is presented in both English and Mandarin (the commercial version will only have the song in Mandarin according to the accompanying promotional notes), while the other addition is an untitled score cue running 2:22. The time above is for the promo disc. Presumably the commercial disc will be 6 minutes shorter. - Gary S. Dalkin]

Amazon USA

This soundtrack to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is very much a Sony project, with both composer Tan Dun and soloist, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma being exclusive Sony recording artists. Very odd then that the detailed notes on Yo-Yo Ma's career make no mention of his superb collaboration with that rather better known film composer, and fellow Sony artist, John Williams, for Seven Years in Tibet (1997). Which handily gives me a very nice reference point. The short version of this review might go: however much you like or dislike John Williams score for Seven Years in Tibet, with cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma, you'll like this about the same. Except that would be too simplistic. The former film was set, obviously, in Tibet, in the 1930's and 40's, with music rather more meditative in tone than here.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon marks the director Ang Lee's continued exploration of large scale film making following last year's Ride With the Devil, a surprising but most welcome new avenue after such domestic films as Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and The Ice Storm. The film, a tale of love and adventure set in ancient China revolving around the quest for a 300 year old sword has proved a massive success at the festivals it has so far been screened at, being reputed to be both breaktakingly beautiful and filled with some of the most stunning action scenes yet to grace an oriental action move. That the film also stars Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh elevates it to automatic must see status.

If the score by Chinese-American composer Tan Dun does not immediately strike one as being particularly distinctive, it may simply be that it perfectly evokes exactly the sound one imagines for an epic scale historical Chinese romantic adventure. To Western ears this might be the archetypal Chinese film score, with all the characteristic devices of films such as The Last Emperor (ironically composed by the Japanese Ryuichi Sakamoto and American David Byrne) present and correct. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is elegant, majestic, spare, haunting, epic and somehow timeless, summoning vast landscapes and a world centuries gone by with what seems like consummate ease.

The main themes are immensely attractive, and while the presence of Yo-Yo Ma inevitably calls to mind Seven Years in Tibet, this is a faster moving, more action orientated piece of work. Ma's cello is wondrously pure, the simple lines of his melodies almost overwhelming in intensity and clear-eyed sorrow. 'The Eternal Vow' is so evocative as to actually summon thoughts of eternity even before one has read the track title. 'A Wedding Interrupted' is tense, relentless action scoring with a strong emotive core, drama balanced by the authentic folk sound of percussion and bamboo flute on 'To the South'.

Everything one could want from an intelligently crafted epic film score is here, except perhaps vast scale. Even the big action set-pieces have a restrained grandeur, in refreshing contrast to the over-the-top untrammelled bombast of many current Hollywood scores. The difference is taste, this being an eloquent score from a composer sufficiently confident to know that less can be more, yet also able to provide plenty of musical excitement in cues such as 'The Encounter' and 'Night Fight'. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a very fine score, written with integrity for what looks as if it should be an outstanding film. A shame then that the almost inevitable pop song rears its ugly head. Based on the main theme of the film, and featuring Yo-Yo Ma's cello, this is a piece of pop-Mandarin which has no place here at all, and is sung by an apparently very successful Hong Kong born Mandarin singer CoCo Lee. It is as inappropriate as Celine Dion's wretched caterwauling over the end titles of Titanic. At least, like the similarly awful song which marred Chow Yun Fat's criminally under-rated movie Anna and the King (gloriously scored by George Fenton), the song has been placed first on the commercial album (there are two versions at the end of the promo disc), so making it easy to skip.

Gary S. Dalkin


Jeffrey Wheeler is not quite so enthusiastic:-

Martial arts films are not among the traditional avenue of filmusic appreciation in the Western world, in defiance of how the subjects of yore and oftentimes-supernatural feats give potential for universal storytelling. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" derives from the fourth part of a five-part novel by Wang Dulu, and marks the first worldwide, big-budget release of a Wuxia Pien: a film about the legendary Wuxia, superhuman knights of ancient China. Director Ang Lee plans to continue the epic tale as a film trilogy. Composer Tan Dun helps start the cycle.

This is a bold instrumental and reflective cultural score. Tan Dun's main theme reflects the atmosphere of Mandarin China and the abundantly textured account of noble warriors from hundreds of years BC. Usually played by virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a comfortable manner that outdoes his performance of somewhat similar material for John Williams' "Seven Years in Tibet", the stately flowing melody is not exceptionally memorable but rather subtle and unexpectedly poignant. The exotic orchestrations attractively blend the sound of the symphony orchestra, regarded as more of a European characteristic, with the seductive instruments & musicianship of the Far East. Strings, percussion and winds provide the bulk of the sound. Such integration makes the action cues sound simultaneously old and new, while the loose collaboration of styles brings a personal tenderness to the times of meditation on war or relation.

Then the music loses its range of surprises. The dynamics expressed in the early portions of the score frustratingly boil down to reiterating passages and repetitious drumming. Variation wanders back onto the beaten path and camps there. Is there supposed to be a lack of resolution? Lastly, the main theme becomes 'A Love Before Time' sung by CoCo Lee, the Asian pop soprano with enough edge to her voice to eviscerate an army. Inexplicably presented twice, an English version and a Mandarin one, the bland lyrics cheapen Tan Dun's likable theme, but Lee's performance in the traumatizing vocal heritage of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion is the gravamen here. (Someone please make the divas go away.)

My exposure to Chinese film music is limited, but music is an international language with the power to broaden our minds and open our ears. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" aims to balance martial action with grand romance and as a whole succeeds.

Jeffrey Wheeler


Ian Lace adds an end note:-

My reaction sits somewhere between the opinions of Gary and Jeffrey. I found this score absorbing; it captivated my ear from beginning to end -- and I even liked the obligatory pop song at the end (beautifully and exotically orchestrated) sung beguilingly by CoCo Lee - Dion, weep,weep! Yo Yo Ma's cello adds another dimension of drama, atmosphere and gravitas. A colourful, vibrant and most important - an unusual score that just misses my recommendation.

Ian Lace


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