|Once Upon a Time in China (1991)|
|Writers:||Leung Yiu Ming, Tang Pik-yin, Tsui Hark and Gai Chi Yuen|
|Starring:||Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan and Yuen Biao|
|The Plot: Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) is a legendary Chinese folk-hero who looks after the well being of the people. After his master is ostracized to Vietnam, Wong Fei-hung is left to form up the local militia within Hong Kong in the face of a tremendous number of foreigners stepping into China in order to take advantage of slave labor and local commodities. Wong Fei-hung is soon left in charge of 13th Aunt (Rossamund Kwan), who he begins to develop a relationship with. At the same time, Leung Foon (Yuen Biao) is searching for Fei-hung in order to become one of his students after being harassed by the Shaho gang who rule this small coastal town. This gang soon becomes the enemy of Wong Fei-hung after Foon is chased into his school, and it turns out that this gang has been hired by the foreigners. Soon Wong Fei-hung is attacked by this gang as well as city hall who are also in cahoots with the foreign invaders.|
What Once Upon a Time in China does differently from the films that came before it is enormous. There are elements from all of the varying offshoots of Kung Fu cinema that had been alive since the earliest days of cinema in Hong Kong, but the way the film mixed them all into a bag is what created this new and unique vision. You start things off by looking at the choreography. Taking the use of wires to exaggerate “flying” movements, this technique was primarily reserved for swordsman films and general Wuxia titles from back in the day. This sort of exaggerating was popular due to its root in Chinese folk lore, but the mix of this along with a more rooted tone was certainly a new concept. You never truly believe that Jet Li has the ability to fly whilst watching Once Upon a Time in China, but at key moments he is able to defy the laws of gravity for only the tiniest of instances. Then you have the very Chinese-centric sense of nationalism that pervades every frame of the film. Although we had seen this before, more often than not in Kung Fu titles that also focused on the turbulent years around the turn of 20th century where China had to deal with such a Western influence, it had never seemed so militarized. Wong Fei-hung had been represented as a national icon in years previous, but here he truly is the Chinese version of Superman. Truth, Justice and the Chinese fighting spirit.
Part of what makes the movie so special, aside from the blistering choreography and the inventive new cinematography, are the performances from the all star cast. Jet Li had already made a name for himself within Hong Kong but this film along with some others would help solidify him as an international star. It would also introduce a great number of Kung Fu film fans to an entirely new generation of martial arts cinema. However, these are just contextual issues that make the movie great and I must assure you from the point of general film entertainment: it is one of the very best.