Dir. Tsui Hark, 1991, Hong Kong, 128 mins, subtitles
Cast: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung
Once Upon a Time in China is the first in a series of seven films based on the character of Wong Fei-hung, an expert martial artist, doctor and Cantonese revolutionary who died in 1924. Countless numbers of films have been made with Wong as the leading protagonist, but this film was significant as it heralded the beginning of a film series that rejuvenated a heroic character at a time when Hong Kong was facing re-unification with Mainland China.
The film is set towards the end of the nineteenth century, at a time when Hong Kong has been divided up and dished out to Western powers. Foreigners are descending on the island, threatening traditional Chinese culture with modernisation, represented through the camera, the locomotive train and most significantly: the gun. The people of Hong Kong need a local hero to look up to and follow in a time of change and disruption. Enter Wong Fei-hung. Together with his distant Aunt Yee (who is also his love interest – nothing incestuous though) and the students from his martial arts school, Wong takes on a number of caricature foreign bad guys and fellow martial artists in order to instil and retain a sense of cultural pride in his people.
This is one of Tsui Hark’s most well known films alongside Zu Warriors from Magic Mountain (1983). It also shot Jet Li (who plays Wong Fei-hung) to legendary status in his homeland. One of the most recognizable (and copied) scenes in Once Upon a Time in China is the dramatic and superbly choreographed fight sequence between Wong Fei-hung and his rival Iron Robe Yim. Using ladders, wires (as they should be used) and ‘real’ kung fu to great effect, it ranks as one of the greatest and most memorable martial arts scenes in cinematic history. The film in general is littered with a barrage of crisply executed fight sequences that put Jet Li’s Western equivalents to shame. For those of you who only know Jet Li through the likes of Cradle 2 to the Grave (2003) and Romeo Must Die (2001), I would advise you to watch this film to experience the true extent of his physical talents.
Li is supported by a strong cast that includes the beautiful and enamouring Rosamund Kwan (Aunt Yee) and the stable mate of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung; Yuen Biao. Biao (who plays the role of Foon) provides additional kung fu expertise as well as the comedy element to Li’s straight-laced Wong Fei-hung. He also displays the physical attributes he acquired training with the Peking Opera, making his body perform outlandish feats that back up the many claims that put his skills above those of his more famous peers Chan and Hung. Coupled with lavish periodic settings and costume, Once Upon a Time in China has the feeling of a grand epic rather than a run of the mill, cheaply produced kung fu movie. Although it is, primarily, a visual feast of physicality that your eyes can gorge themselves on, the specific historical setting in a turbulent era, adds a sense of passion and impending loss that puts it several notches above the average Hong Kong martial arts film.
In essence, Once Upon a Time in China is an extremely nationalistic film made at a time when the people of Hong Kong needed a homegrown hero at the cinema. The cultural value and significance of this film should not be underestimated. The fear that dominated Hong Kong in the years prior to the handover also dominated the narratives of Hong Kong produced films. Themes of loss, identity crisis and an obsession with time and dates (see the films of Wong Kar Wai for further examples) permeated a vast array of films, representing the fears of the people. The introduction of the gun to Hong Kong is used as a representative object of change and modernity. Brought to the island by foreigners, the gun brings with it only death and misery, giving the impression that a bleak future lies ahead. The role of Jet Li’s Wong Fei-hung is to inspire hope and a sense of national pride in the local audience as well as operating as an image of adaptability. Wong overcomes the new foreign threats by adapting and overcoming them. When his adversary attempts to shoot him towards the end of the film he uses his masterful skills in kung fu to dodge the bullets and fire them back by flicking them with his fingers.
Another important aspect to Once Upon a Time in China is the catchy theme tune that accompanies the films opening image of hundreds of Chinese warriors practicing kung fu in unison on the beach. The song was used in the subsequent sequels and during Wong Fei-hung’s fight scenes. Its popularity is such that it has since been adopted as a kind of national anthem for Hong Kong and is played at celebratory events.
Without getting too bogged down by the cultural and historical importance of the film, Once Upon a Time in China is, on one level, an entertaining and often funny martial arts film. The fight sequences are stunning and will no doubt rank as some of the best you have ever seen and still remain, to my mind, Jet Li’s greatest work to date.