Martial Arts
Once Upon a Time in China
Dir: Tsui Hark
Star: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Yuen Biao, Jackie Cheung
Cert / Year: 15 - R / 1991
Format: DVD R2

Once Upon A Time In China is a tale of the adventures of legendary martial arts master and popular Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, as he battles ruthless imperialist forces whilst they divide his country and enslave the people, holding sway over the land by means of corruption and a terrifying new weapon.... the gun.

This period martial arts masterpiece courtesy of Asian cinema legend Tsui Hark is one of more than 100 films made of the legendary Chinese hero and martial arts legend Wong Fei-Hung. The film portrays the famous doctor and martial arts master during a time of great change in China as China's relations with the rest of the world during the 19th century result in various concessions and treaties being entered into and the thriving culture is a victim of increasing corruption.

Hark, inspired by the Sergio Leone classic Once Upon A Time In The West combines a distinct artistic vision and the amazing martial arts intensity of Jet Li. Notably, this launched the beginning of a sub-career for Jet as he returned to the role for three sequels, and has played the character outside of the Once Upon a Time in China saga. For many fans, Jet Li's portrayal of Wong Fei-Hung is considered the best as he brings a mature depiction of an intense, focussed, knowledgeable and wise young martial arts master. At times he appears quite boyish due to the excellent chemistry between him and Rosamund Kwan as Yee, as the mutual love interests evolve. This on screen incarnation is thankfully far removed from the oafish portrayal by Jackie Chan in Drunken Master or the subdued and ageing Fei-Hung portrayed by Kwan Tak Hing in more than 70 movies, over the years.

There are few Hong Kong movies that display such beautiful photography, sumptuous direction and exceptional martial arts, blisteringly performed and choreographed. Once Upon a Time in China is blessed with plenty of imaginative and technically superb fight sequences, and the thrilling warehouse confrontation during the film's finale using bamboo ladders is pure classic. This is a superb example of the Hong Kong cinema genre and is quite frankly.... brilliant. The balletic grace of Jet Li is one of the endearing qualities of the film as his traditional style and effortless grace are packed with a kinetic charge, performed with awe inspiring finesse. Thankfully Tsui Hark chose the Wushu champion with little acting experience for this important role, over actors who could merely "perform" martial arts. What this character needed for a successful portrayal was martial arts expertise to attain that degree of believeability, which is just what you get with Jet Li.

Director, Tsui Hark brings a new lease of life to the beloved Chinese historical figure of Wong Fei-Hung and exerts a small amount of licence with the story to include a love interest between Yee and Fei-Hung. In addition to playing around a little with history (Well, it works for Hollywood) and having the Canton harbour full of British, American and French warships to cause friction and form the basis of the film as Fei-Hung does what he can to battle injustice and oppression under the imperiallist yolk. As there are no photographs in existance of Fei-Hung , it is perhaps amusing and ironic that throughout the film everytime anyone tries to take his picture something happens and it goes wrong.

The success of Once Upon a Time in China signalled a renewed interest in period martial arts films and the market was soon filled as more and more martial arts movies appeared. Hong Kong cinema director and famous martial arts choreographer, Yuen Woo Ping who had created a slightly irreverant, comedic Fei-Hung with Jackie Chan for his classic Drunken Master returned to the Wong Fei-Hung legend to make Iron Monkey in 1993 which chronicled a fictional period during Fei-Hung's childhood. This time around, Woo-Ping kept a slightly more mature view of Fei-Hung in keeping with the more popular vision created by Once Upon a Time in China and despite an almost rabid desire and love of wire work, he produced a fun and entertaining vision of Fei-Hung's youth.

Lavish and full of visual magic, this is a bonafide modern classic and undeniably one of the best traditional martial arts films that you could ever see. This is no "chop socky" flick so don't expect one. The film is well paced and features some superb fight sequences, and amazing action. Tsui Hark has managed to capture some of the most fluidic and technical martial arts which enrich the superb atmosphere of the film. An excellent cast all provide good performances, notably Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan and Jackie Cheung as "Buck Teeth-So". The cinematography is stunning and enchanting, featuring some captivating photography. The numerous scenes filmed in heavy rain are excellently composed and afford some memorable moments, especially the duel at Lam Chi Bo between Master Yim and Fei-Hung which is stunning. By Western standards, the story may appear a bit low brow in places but to be honest the breathtaking visuals and cinematic artistry is so strong that it is easy to overlook what minor flaws there may be.

From the picturesque beach training at sunrise en masse and the jaw dropping rain drenched battle within the courtyard of Lam Chi Bo through to the stunning finale, this is a well written and superbly crafted piece of Hong Kong cinema, the martial arts are both intense and amazing and make this a must see for any fan of traditional martial arts movies.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Picture 2.35:1 Anamorphic Great quality picture transfer
Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 (Cantonese) & Dubbed Dolby 2.0 Good mix - AC3 5:1 Digital Audio.
Animated Menu
Full length audio commentary by Bey Logan and Mark King
Animated Biography Showcase
UK Promotional Trailer
Production Photo Gallery
Interview Gallery
Verdict Another good release from Hong Kong Legends. The audio commentary would have been far more interesting and entertaining if some of the cast or Tsui Hark had done it instead of Mark King and Bey Logan. Some good interviews but most importantly a good transfer which looks great.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Logan Back Top Home