Once Upon a Time in China was a big hit in its native Hong Kong when released back in 1991. It portrayed the folk hero Wong Fei-hung, which was nothing new. The character had appeared in over 70 films prior to that, mostly starring Kwan Tak-hing as the hero, but Once Upon a Time in China brought Fei-hung back to popularity, launching Jet Li into the stratosphere and ushering in a new wave of period martial arts films throughout the 90s. It spawned several sequels too and this new box set from Eureka collects the first three films, which all starred Li and were directed by Tsui Hark. Also included (even though the set is called the Once Upon a Time in China Trilogy) is Li’s 1997 return to the role (with Hark as producer), Once Upon a Time in China and America. Of course I was quick to request a screener, so here are my brief thoughts on each film and the set itself.
Once Upon a Time in China
Director: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Yiu-ming Leung, Elsa Tang (as Pik-yin Tang), Hark Tsui, Kai-Chi Yuen (as Kai-Chi Yun)
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung, Kent Cheng, Shi-Kwan Yen, Kam-Fai Yuen
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 134 min
The first film in the series is set in late 19th Century Foshan, China, during a turbulent time in the nation’s history when Western powers were muscling into the country and the imperial Qing dynasty was on its last legs. Wong Fei-hung lives in Foshan and runs a traditional Chinese medicine clinic, Po-chi-lam, as well as being the martial arts instructor of the local militia. He meets and falls for Siu-kwan (Rosamund Kwan) an attractive young woman who, due to Chinese custom, he is obliged to call his 13th Aunt. Having lived in the West for a while though, she has more modern attitudes and would prefer Fei-hung to be more forward with her and less traditional.
The Western clothes and gadgets she carts around cause issues wherever she goes among the closed-minded townsfolk and a cocky wannabe martial artist, Leung Foon (Yuen Biao), stirs up trouble too among gang members. Their fight spills over into Fei-hung’s martial arts school and then into foreign territory, causing the already fractured relationships between groups to snap. Fei-hung is one of the few level headed people left in the middle, as the local government, militia and foreigners all come to loggerheads and various schemes are plotted to get one over on one another.
I’d seen Once Upon a Time in China before and always liked it, although I never held it in quite as high a regard as many martial arts fans did. This rewatch has raised it up a few notches though. I think the new remastered HD picture quality helps, as I could really appreciate the craftsmanship and gorgeous visuals. Tsui Hark is a master at putting together stylish action movies and this sees him at the top of his game. He loves to shoot at unusual angles and with frequent movement, so there’s a great dynamism to the cinematography. He makes great use of the elements too, with some memorable scenes in the rain and regular hazing of smoke or mist to add atmosphere as well as some fire when appropriate. Hong Kong action films are often quite cheap compared to their American counterparts and it can show on screen. Hark however, made the most of what he had and, although you can see the seems in places, it’s a beautiful piece of work.
The film also has more substance than most kung-fu movies of the era and is very political. Granted, it’s not always subtle, but explores issues of racism and closed-minded attitudes not only prevalent at the time being depicted, but at the time the film was made. Hong Kong was due to be handed back to China in 1997, and the public was very wary of this and worried about what would happen. So this acts as a clear metaphor for what was to come. When I was younger and first watched Once Upon a Time in China, I used to think it was a xenophobic flag-waving advert for the strength of China, but my older and (slightly) wiser self realises this isn’t quite the case. The film is a call out for all sides to learn from each other and accept change, and you’ll see this thread runs through the whole saga. Yes there’s a lot of patriotism on display and the chief protagonists are all Chinese, but it’s not as one-sided as I once believed.
Martial arts fans probably don’t care too much about the political underpinnings of the film though and arthouse lovers probably find them a bit blunt, so lets talk about the action. With the great Yuen Woo Ping as action co-ordinator it was always going to be good and he brings his A-game here. It’s not as action-packed as some of his earlier kung-fu films such as Drunken Master, but when the fights come they’re spectacular. The climactic face-off between Fei-hung and Iron Robe Yim (Shi-Kwan Yen) is particularly impressive, utilising bamboo ladders and other props in an inventive and thrillingly fast-paced battle. Li actually broke his ankle early on in production so was doubled a lot during the shoot, but this is fairly well hidden and his regular double Shi-Kwan Yen (yes the same actor Jet fights at the end!) does a stellar job.
So overall the film was even better than I remembered. It’s got a bit of flag waving and packs a little too much in to its story (Foon’s thread feels like a whole other film at times), but ultimately its the action and visual style that sticks with you, making it one of the finest martial arts movies ever made.
Once Upon a Time in China II
Director: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Tin-suen Chan, Tan Cheung, Hark Tsui
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Siu Chung Mok, Donnie Yen, David Chiang, Xin Xin Xiong, Tielin Zhang
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 113 min
Once Upon a Time in China II sees Wong Fei-hung travel to Canton, but once again he’s landed in the middle of a conflict between various groups harbouring prejudices against each other. For one, there’s the White Lotus cult, who use violent methods to drive out foreign influence and are preaching xenophobia across the city. Then you’ve got the local military, led by Commander Lan (Donnie Yen) who is trying to hunt down revolutionaries and turns a blind eye to White Lotus activities to help him do this. Getting put under siege by both parties are the British in their embassy. Fei-hung attempts to keep the peace whilst trying to find shelter for some orphaned children as well as help the revolutionary Lu Haodong (David Chiang) escape without the names of other comrades getting into the hands of Lan.
So yes, it’s another fairly complicated tale that asks ‘why can’t we all just get along’ and has many similarities to the first film in the series. However, you can tell Hark wanted to up his game after the earlier success and this is often believed to be the best of the trilogy. I’m not sure I totally agree with that sentiment, but it certainly makes a few improvements.
For one, the storyline is a little more streamlined and has a clearer flow to it, with less disparate threads than the first film. Also, as great as part 1 looks, part 2 is even prettier. The lighting is markedly better, with some wonderfully atmospheric moments, not the least the opening sequence where we watch the White Lotus cult perform a dark ritual in their temple. With a bigger budget, sets are a little more impressive too and camera moves a bit smoother and slicker.
Jet Li is once again excellent in the starring role. Although his Hollywood debut was playing an evil villain in Lethal Weapon 4, his Hong Kong on-screen persona is generally more dignified and reserved, yet quietly commanding, so he’s perfect as the level-headed doctor-cum-fighter Wong Fei-hung. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role, even though many have.
I did feel there could have been a little more action though as it’s a while before we get a truly great fight. However, when they come they’re incredible. The film is most praised among martial arts fans for the two battles between Li and Yen and the final face-off in particular can be counted as one of Hong Kong cinema’s greatest fight scenes. The pair are both immensely talented martial artists off-screen and they really let rip here, aided once again by some inventive and exciting choreography by the great Yuen Woo-Ping.
So it’s another grand scale action drama set on a beautiful canvas. It may take a little while to kick into high gear, but when it does the film lets loose some of the finest martial arts sequences put to celluloid and it’s all shot with Hark’s usual flair.
Once Upon a Time in China III
Director: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Tin-suen Chan, Tan Cheung, Hark Tsui
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Siu Chung Mok, Xin Xin Xiong, Shun Lau, John Wakefield
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 109 min
In Once Upon a Time in China III, Fei-hung, Foon (played by Siu Chung Mok since the last film) and Siu-kwan/13th Aunt arrive in Beijing at a time when the Empress has announced a lion dance competition. The preparations for this traditional contest cause rivalries among gangs in the area and Fei-hung’s father (Shun Lau) is attacked whilst trying to defend his association’s collection of lion’s heads. Leading most of these attacks is the arrogant and wealthy Chiu Tin-bak (Jin Chiu), who is trying to strong-arm his rivals out of the competition before it takes place. Meanwhile, Fei-hung is struggling to find the courage to break tradition and ask his dad for permission to marry Siu-kwan, and is also jealous of the Russian Tumanovsky (John Wakefield), who has his eyes on her.
Once Upon a Time in China III doesn’t share the esteemed reputation of its two predecessors, so my expectations were set fairly low. However, I was pleasantly surprised by it. Yes, the film has flaws. It’s more episodic and broadly comic, losing much of the political edge evident before (although the same messages of acceptance and working together are here). Fei-hung’s character isn’t as well drawn here either, with the comic scenes of jealousy towards the Russian and cowardice with regards to confronting his father not settling with the usual level-headed and strong man we know best.
In general it’s not as classy, with Hark’s visual style taking a bit of a blow too. It’s a very colourful film, particularly when the lions are out, and the success of part II meant sets could be even more lavish. However, the camerawork doesn’t seem quite as exciting and the lighting is less atmospheric (the DOP changed which may be the main cause of this). The whole film seems a bit more ‘churned out’.
However, despite these admittedly quite big problems, I found myself really enjoying the film. I think this is because it felt more like a straight-up classic kung-fu action movie. There are a lot of fights spread throughout the reduced running time, so you don’t get too much time to worry about anything lacking in the script. Bun Yuen replaces Yuen Woo-Ping as action director, but does a decent job of it. More wire-work is used and probably less actual true martial arts, but there are plenty of enjoyably crazy action sequences, particularly in one scene where Chiu attempts to trap Fei-Hung. Xin Xin Xiong is also very impressive here as ‘Club Foot’, demonstrating some wild and bizarre acrobatic skills. There are maybe too many lion dance scenes, spoiling the impact of the finale, but I still enjoyed the mayhem of the film’s climax and the lions certainly make for a colourful and lively display.
So I came in looking for flaws and yes, maybe it’s not as carefully constructed as the first two films and is less classy, but I still had a great deal of fun watching it. There’s more action and comedy and although it’s less graceful, it’s still very exciting.
Once Upon a Time in China and America
Director: Sammo Hung
Screenplay: Cheuk-Hon Szeto (as Szeto Chek Hon), Sharon Hui, Mei-Yee Sze, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Man Sing So
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Xin Xin Xiong, Kwok-Pong Chan, Jeff Wolfe, Joseph Sayah
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 102 min
Reportedly, Jet Li and Tsui Hark fell out with each other during the production of Once Upon a Time in China III so Li left the series. The films were still popular though, so another sequel was made starring Vincent Zhao as Wong Fei-hung and with Hark as producer, but not director. This was followed by part V, also starring Zhao and this time directed by Hark. The rapid delivery of these sequels halted for a couple of years due to their diminishing success, but in 1997 Li returned to the Wong Fei-hung role for Once Upon a Time in China and America. Hark produced, but direction was handed over to the great Sammo Hung.
The film makes the unusual choice of putting Fei-hung, Siu-kwan and Club Foot (all played by the same actors as before) in the American West. They’ve travelled over to visit Buck Teeth So (Kwok-Pong Chan) who has opened a Po-chi-lam clinic there. They pick up a stranded gunslinger, Billy (Jeff Wolfe), along the way who is impressed by Fei-hung’s kind-heart and martial arts skills. However, before they reach town they’re ambushed by Native Americans, culminating in Fei-hung hitting his head and getting swept down river, where he’s saved by another Native American tribe, but wakes with amnesia. Siu-kwan and the others make it to town and she heads a desperate search for Fei-hung. Unfortunately, the Chinese are classed as second class citizens there, with the Americans treating them like slaves or animals. They need Fei-hung’s help, that is if they can find him still alive and get his memory back.
Like Once Upon a Time in China III, only possibly more so, Once Upon a Time in China and America doesn’t have the best reputation and I can see why. The wild west meets wire-fu concept is unusual and more than often quite silly, but being a big western and kung-fu movie fan I was pleased to see them brought together. Yes, the film has numerous flaws and is nowhere near as finely crafted as its predecessors, but I thought it was still a heck of a lot of fun.
There’s a lot of action and with Hung in the director’s chair, he ensures the fights are blisteringly fast-paced and make great use of western props like a stagecoach, tomahawks, spears and a windmill (possibly referencing Once Upon a Time in the West). The wire-work is toned down a little from the last film too, although there are still a few crazy ‘assisted’ moves here and there. Billy even gets one when he performs an acrobatic leap to take out a bad guy.
Away from the action though, the film is pretty ropey. The amnesia plot is a bit daft and has been done many times before. There’s a weak love triangle thread thrown in too when Fei-Wei-Hung gives his engagement ring to a Native American when he still hasn’t regained his memory, so Siu-kwan thinks he doesn’t love her anymore. Also, although there’s once again an anti-racism message, it’s very simplistic here and feels tired by this point down the saga.
Not helping matters are some poor performances from the English-speaking actors. I guess you could say it matches the broad Chinese style of acting, but it’s rather laughably hammy. Plus what on Earth were they thinking with Billy’s blonde wig? It’s one of the dodgiest hairpieces ever committed to celluloid.
I found silly things like this endearing though to be honest. The film in general is a strange concept so I embraced it for the bonkers genre mishmash that it is. It helps that the genres being squashed together are two of my favourites, but with plenty of well executed action and a rapid pace, it’s an easy watch with elements to recommend. I can see why the box set is called the Once Upon a Time in China Trilogy though as Once Upon a Time in China and America is markedly different from the other films and feels more like a spin-off than a sequel.
I need to mention the music before I move on to the extras though. The Wong Fei-hung theme song, ‘On the General’s Orders’, is as catchy as hell and rousingly effective in all the films, but Once Upon a Time in China and America makes the most amusing and post-modern use of the theme. As well as featuring a great spaghetti western spin on the music in the opening sequence, you get a group of characters suddenly grabbing instruments to start playing it to Wong Fei-hung at one point to try and jog his memory! It’s another example of why this 6th film from the franchise is a lot of goofy fun.
Once Upon a Time in China Trilogy is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. The transfers look fantastic – clean, detailed and colourful, yet natural looking. You get a variety of audio options, which cover all the bases.
You get plenty of special features too:
– Special Limited Edition Box Set
– 1080p presentations of all three films, sourced from brand new 4K restorations and making their UK debuts on Blu-ray
– Original Cantonese audio tracks
– Optional English audio tracks
– Optional English subtitles
– Once Upon a Time in China and America [100 mins, HD] the final chapter in the Once Upon a Time in China series presented from a new 2K restoration, with Jet Li making a triumphant return to his most iconic role
– New audio commentaries on Once Upon a Time in China I-III by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder and filmmaker Arne Venema
– Exclusive new video interview with actor Mike Miller [49 mins]
– Exclusive new video interview with actor John Wakefield [29 mins]
– The Legend of Wong Fei-Hung [48 mins] a featurette on the legendary folk hero
– Archival interview with actor and Shaw Brothers veteran, Yen Shi-kwan [10 mins]
– Archival interview with Jet Li [10 mins]
– Archival interview with Donnie Yen | Archival Q&A with Jet Li [10 mins]
– Archival interview with director Tsui Hark [23 mins]
– Archival interview with actor John Wakefield [11 mins]
– Making of Once Upon a Time in China and America [25 mins]
– Box set exclusive Collector’s booklets featuring new essays on all films by James Oliver
Most of the recent Eureka classic martial arts re-releases have been relying largely on recycling old extras from the Hong Kong Legends DVDs, but here they’ve started to venture out and add some new material as well as find some interesting archival featurettes. Most notable and welcome are the new commentaries. The Bey Logan commentaries (and other featurettes) have been kept out of all of Eureka’s releases due to serious criminal allegations made against him and his supposed links with the Weinstein affair. Leaving them off was the right decision of course, but it left these new releases a little weak on the extras front. Mike Leeder and Arne Venema fill the gap admirably here though, delivering three enjoyable and highly informative commentary tracks on the main three films in the trilogy. I was a little disappointed they spend most of part III slagging it off, but otherwise the pair do a stellar job and I hope they come back for any future martial arts movies Eureka release.
The Wong Fei-Hung featurette is a nice addition too, filling us in on the folk legend’s history. I was also pleasantly surprised by the interview with Mike Miller. He’s only got a small part in Once Upon a Time in China II, so I originally though ‘why do we need to hear his thoughts?’ but, on top of finding out he did a lot of stunt/extra work throughout the film, his story is interesting in itself. Similarly, the John Wakefield pieces are worth a watch too, whereas a lot of the archival interviews with the big stars and Tsui Hark are a little fluffy and promotional, so don’t dig particularly deep.
Overall it’s a superb set though and should be at the top of all kung-fu fans’ Christmas lists!