Performance review: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Film with Orchestra, Hamer Hall

With the backing of an orchestra, this multi award-winning movie was sonically resonant.

There’s been a recent trend of big blockbuster films like Star Wars, The Princess Bride and even Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes gang being given another life by removing them from their usual cinematic and televisual streaming environments and setting them against the force of a live orchestra.

With its Oscar-winning score by Tan Dun performed by the Green Destiny Orchestra, the multi-awarded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the latest in this phenomenon as presented by Symphonic Cinema. (Those with good memories of this 2000 celluloid release will recall that Green Destiny is the name of the sword that was relinquished, then stolen and parried with by the three protagonists in Crouching Tiger.) Director Ang Lee’s martial arts motion picture was an ideal choice to be accompanied by a live soundtrack for this Australian premiere performance.

Not only are the physical action scenes spectacular (remember the balletic flying across roofs and treetops, the quick silver clashing of swords, and the warriors atop horses crossing the desert?) but the stirring, romantic, open-hearted music is also powerfully wrought, even more so when you are in the presence of a full suite of musicians performing in the acoustically superior concert space of Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.

Shining like beacons against the formal, black-garbed orchestral ensemble were two featured soloists, resplendent in red: internationally renowned cellist Tina Guo (best known for playing the Wonder Woman theme as well as contributions to The Lion King, Dune, Top Gun, Dunkirk) and Ying Yang, equally skilled with the pipa, a type of Chinese lute. Their individual, spotlit talents added a flair to the overall symphonic occasion.

Conductor Jessica Gethin led the team with a verve that matched the energy of the narrative onscreen, after explaining how some of the specific Chinese instruments used by Dun’s score have been closely replicated by the orchestra’s own percussive section. Indeed, in the combat scenes in particular, the drumming from a Japanese taiko came to the fore in the fight-dance between love and honour.

(Re)watching Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi as they glided and fought mid-air, the audience was reminded of why the movie was nominated for 10 Oscars and won Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, as well as Best Score. But what was even more impressive was having an all-surround, immersive experience of orchestral manoeuvres in the dark – a salient reminder of how crucial music is to the success of many movies, and especially to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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It was just a pity the event was for just one day only, with two sessions available, but those interested in orchestra accompaniments to moving pictures should follow Symphonic Cinema for future performances.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Film with Orchestra was presented by Symphonic Cinema and performed by Green Destiny Orchestra, Tina Guo and Ying Yang with conductor Jessica Gethin on 5 August 2023.

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press (UWAP). Her next collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Twitter: @thuy_on