Once Upon a Time in China (1990)
Starring: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan
Director: Tsui Hark
Plot: In 19th century China, the legendary Wong Fei-Hung must face corrupt government officials, a band of violent local gangsters, a rogue martial arts master, and an array of evil foreign entrepreneurs to protect his school and the people around him.
Review: Often called the ultimate kung-fu flick, Once Upon a Time in China became an instant classic of the genre, and its easy to see why. The action scenes by famed choreographer Yuen Woo Ping
(Iron Monkey, The
Matrix) are peppered throughout the first half of the film, and are amazing in their inventiveness and raw energy, many of which depict the hero battling a multitude of adversaries with poles, swords, bare hands, and, yes, even one startling scene with an umbrella! But this section also exposes in no uncertain terms a very patriotic political agenda, not so much anti-Western as a pro-Chinese (or pro-tradition) indictment of colonialism, yet one that is tempered with the need to pull China into the modern world. The multitude of characters, all played by familiar faces, show this well: these include the down-trodden master willing to turn a blind eye to injustice for a return to glory (impeccably played by Yan Yee
Kwan), or the disciple who doesn't know which master to follow (the always brilliant Yuen Biao), or the Chinese doctor who has learnt abroad and is now an outcast in his own country (played by Jacky Cheung, in fine form). But amongst the serious, there is also a healthy dose of humor which spans the romantic, the clever, and the downright
slapstick. Director Tsui Hark (Peking
Opera Blues) has puts all his skills on display here, from the excellent cinematography, to the dynamic camera shots and colorful mise-en-scene. The second half of the film, though, is absolutely spectacular as the heroes fight back in a crescendo of jaw-dropping martial artistry and wire-fu, most notable of which is an extended, high-flying battle between the two masters in a warehouse full of ladders and crossbeams. Apart from all its technical and fun-factor merits, the film is also famous for putting international
action star Jet Li on the map - his rendering of the Wong Fei-Hung character is perfect, with just the right amount of grace, poise, caring and charm, all this on top of his amazing martial arts abilities, of course. Combining political subtext with some blazing action,
Once Upon a Time in Chine revitalized the genre and is easily one of the best, most entertaining films to come out of Hong Kong, or anywhere.