Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
Director: Tsui Hark
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.

The Review
Every film critic or writer has to have a select number of films that generally intimidate them when it comes time to give some kind of a critical review. There are those films that have been so heavily praised amongst film critics for such a tremendous amount of time that any coverage seems like it will undoubtedly come across as old-hat material. How does one comment on a film when some of the best writers who have ever lived have already wrote entire books on a particular film, or filmmaker? There are those, which are more excusable due to our own fear of inadequacy, but then there are the titles that we grew up on as well. The movies that have left a tremendous impression on us, that we know we likely can not and will not remain objective with. Once Upon a Time in China is a film that truly lives up to that concept for me. Beloved by a limited but devoted group of fans, Tsui Hark’s magnum opus could very well intimidate any author due to its impact and due to the praise it has received in years past.

Once Upon a Time in China was, certainly during its time, a very important and game-changing title in the realm of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. The influence that Once Upon a Time… would have on the industry is something that is still felt throughout Hong Kong cinema even to this day. An “epic” that mixes everything that Kung Fu cinema had established up until that point, but does so with a touch of class and a revelry for folk lore that had not been seen in such an established manner. The film marks an important and interesting step forward in the word of martial arts cinema. Larger in scope and production values than most martial art films of the time, Kung Fu cinema would shed its simplistic past and enter into a new direction with the release of Jet Li’s worldwide breakout role.

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.

The use of “wire-fu” is actually quite sporadic throughout the film, to be honest. This turns out to be a good thing and with the use being so subtle, it creates a new use for the concept. Many of the fight scenes are actually grounded in reality and not just a series of acrobatic “flying” sequences. The fights that break out between Wong Fei-hung’s students and a gang chasing Yuen Biao near the beginning of the film are handled very well and require little to no excessive physics-defying action. The few moments that really seem to break free of logical thought are handled very well, including the infamous “ladder” fight which may well be one of the impressive fight sequence in Hong Kong film history.

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.

The Conclusion
Clocking in at two hours, something not entirely common for a Kung Fu title to be sure, the film retains a high quality pace that doesn’t relent throughout its running time. Fun, innovative, genius from a technical standpoint and certainly action packed… I really can’t recommend it higher. If you haven’t seen it, then you have waited too long to enter into one of the great trilogies of Martial Arts cinema.