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Once Upon A Time In China (1991)

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[Movie Reviews]


-Jet Li
-Rosamund Kwan
-Yuen Biao


Jet Li takes on the role of legendary Wong Fei Hung in a time when foreign influence in China is at a peak. Chinese people are being convinced to go to America, where it is claimed that there is tons of gold for everyone. These people, of course, are just being sold into labor. Many Chinese thugs are also taking advantage of their own people, demanding protection money from the townspeople. Wong Fei Hung, and a number of others, are disgusted with this foreign influence in China. He and his militia stand against the thugs demanding protection money, through which they get dragged into trouble with both the thugs and the police. The story continues as the thugs work a deal with foreigners to sell women to send to America as prostitutes. Wong Fei Hung and his militia stand against those taking advantage of the Chinese people and learn a thing or two about tolerance themselves.


"Once Upon a Time in China" is a truly epic martial arts film. Not merely a showcase for Jet Li's physical talent, this film has a heart and soul. Its themes run deep and leave a lasting impression on the viewer. The story grabs its audience and doesn't let go until everything is resolved. There is not a whole lot to complain about this film. It has a great story, is artfully thematic, keeps a sense of humor, and still has room for some great fight scenes

It is often assumed, going into a martial arts film, that the plot, while it may be decent, is secondary to the fighting action. While this is true in many cases, many of the great martial arts films have great plots to complement the action. "Once Upon a Time in China" is probably the best example of this type of film. Second only to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Once Upon a Time in China" has the best story you'll see in a martial arts film.

The themes run deep and are presented artfully, but not condescendingly. It is very interesting how the film starts out seeming like it is totally anti-foreign, yet turns into a theme of changing with the world, while staying true to themselves and not letting foreign influences push them around. The theme is best presented through the story with the christian priest. When Wong Fei Hung asks him "I arrested a criminal today. Will Jesus be my witness?", it sets up for a heartwarming show of faith by the priest later in the film. It is hard to do justice to the story and its themes with words. They are so well-presented that their impact is felt long after the movie ends.

Jet Li's portrayal of Wong Fei Hung is also deserving of praise. I can't help but be utterly impressed with how he portrays Wong Fei Hung's wisdom and power in such a calm outer appearance. Other subplots and characters are blended into the film well, with none feeling tacked on or useless. The many subplots, such as Aunt Yee's feelings for Fei Hung and Foon's desire to be a student under a martial arts master all lead into the film's finale, where everything comes together. They also do much to develop the characters, who are all unique and have been given distinctive personalities. Through all of this, in true HK film style, the film manages to throw in some silly humor to prevent the film's themes from becoming overbearing. It is a truly beautiful blend that has been put together in OUATIC.

Fight scenes are of the wire-fu variety and are generally excellent. All the fighting is fairly smooth with some good choreography and good camera work. The real cool thing about the fights here is just how cool the fighters look during the fights. Their composure, the focus on their stances… it really looks "cool". This is possibly also due to the camera work involved, which is one of the keys to the looks of the fights. Also, the manipulation of environment plays a major role in the fights. You'll see everything from a piece of wood being kicked back and forth during a fight in the rain to the manipulation of many ladders to create platforms for fighting. This is pretty interesting and should only disturb those that dislike much of the 90s wire-fu stuff.

There is really nothing to not like in Once Upon a Time in China. The story is brilliant and takes well to multiple viewings. It is really a point I want to stress - this is not a mindless kung fu movie. The story is the key. Also, the tone and overall look of the film sets the scene for the story very well. The acting is top notch. And, you get to top that off with some first class fighting action. Once Upon A Time in China establishes itself as one of the greatest martial arts films ever. Anyone looking for a good tradition period kung fu movie, or just a good movie in general, would do well to pick up Once Upon a Time in China.


-Tsui Hark


-Original Cantonese language.