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Film Review: Once Upon a Time in China

By Simma Park

Once Upon A Time In China

Once Upon a Time in China

NEW YORK, 24 July 2001 - Whether as the trade partner that haunts its dreams (a billion customers, ready to spend), or the stand-in foe in its resurgent Cold War nightmares (sending home a U.S. spy plane in pieces on old Soviet transports), ascendant China wields increasing clout over the American imagination. But, even setting geopolitics aside, China has for some years exerted a powerful influence upon American popular culture, through its influence on Hollywood. The recent U.S. re-release of Hong Kong action cinema milestone Once Upon a Time in China, does more than just bring a kung fu classic to a wider American audience; it exposes the Chinese sources that are reinventing Hollywood action cinema.

When 1999's The Matrix hit American theaters, audiences were enthralled by the movie's kinetic fight scenes, choreographed displays of speed, technical brilliance, and fantasy which made the traditional Hollywood fistfight look leaden. The film's "novel" take on action made it a box office smash, changed Hollywood's approach to the fight scene, and opened the door for other Asian martial arts movies, most notably 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But the team responsible for The Matrix, Larry and Andy Wachowski, are ardent fans of Hong Kong action cinema, and specifically of action star Jet Li.

A major star in Asia since his first movie, Shaolin Temple, launched his career in 1982, and recently featured in Hollywood's Kiss of the Dragon, Li first reached superstar status with his 1991 box office smash Once Upon a Time in China (sometimes called Wong Fei-Hong). The film was also a milestone for director Tsui Hark, often called Hong Kong's Stephen Spielberg. Seeing this film again reminds us that the scenes that made us gasp in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger are mere offshoots of Hong Kong's long-standing action tradition.

Once Upon a Time in China is the story of Wong Fei-Hong (Li), a Chinese folk hero of the later Qing Dynasty (the 1800's). Wong, who has appeared in many novels and films, is usually portrayed as a martial artist, doctor, and patriot who lived in a China devastated by the Opium Wars, threatened by European and American imperialism, and on the verge of the Boxer Rebellion. (Jackie Chan fans will remember a more comic take on Wong in 1978's brilliant Drunken Master, directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, the fight choreographer for The Matrix.) In Once Upon a Time in China, we see a wise and sombre Wong Fei-Hong defending the common people from European and American imperialists, corrupt Chinese government officials selling the country out to Westerners, and new Chinese crime syndicates taking advantage of a country in turmoil. In the process, he must learn to accept the irreversible influence of Western cultures and technologies on his world: Western guns, for instance, are making the martial arts obsolete.

Written for Chinese audiences well familiar with Wong Fei-Hong and his tumultuous times, the movie's plot is more of a slice-of-history presentation than a linear storyline. A Western audience, lacking this background, may have trouble following the events. Mainstream American audiences may also resent the depiction of whites as ruthless conquerors, and of Americans in particular as little better than slave traders, trying to sucker disadvantaged Chinese into servitude in the mines and on the railways of the American West. Those with a greater awareness of Chinese history will find it interesting to see these viewpoints in the context of a popular movie-both in light of the murmurs about Chinese reunification that were circulating when the film was made, and as prologue to recent friction between China and the West.

Hong Kong action flicks draw on a pool of talent that has long years of experience training in Asian martial arts and wushu, as well as some of the most technically demanding stunt work attempted in recent cinema. And Once Upon a Time in China drew on that talent more deeply than most films. Director Tsui Hark is to kung fu what East-West crossover John Woo is to gunplay; and Jet Li, a Chinese national wushu champion who toured the US as far back as 1974, brings his trademark grace and technical precision to the fight scenes, which seamlessly combine brilliantly executed techniques with fantastic wirework. (Li is also an able actor, whose sympathetic screen presence, used to some effect in this film, allows audiences to connect with his characters.)

The film showcases, for good and for ill, another important difference between Hong Kong and Hollywood: leaner productions. Car crashes, explosions, and other blockbuster bloat that puffs up Hollywood action movies demands funding not available to even the most established of Hong Kong filmmakers. The martial-arts tradition that now re-invigorates Hollywood action movies was, ironically, created to bring audiences equivalent thrills within much smaller budgets; and Once Upon a Time in China is certainly one of the success stories of that tradition. Unfortunately, other aspects of the production betray the budget constraints the Tsui Hark faced: picture quality suffered even in the original release, the music is awful, and this latest release features embarrassingly cheesy "Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater" dubbing.

Whatever its imperfections, the action sequences and the movie's take on history make the re-release worth a viewing on the big screen for both newcomers to Hong Kong martial arts movies and old fans who are jumping at the chance to see this classic on a big screen. The mezmerizing action and Jet Li's performance make Once Upon a Time in China a landmark martial arts film and a must-see event.

Three stars.

Related: The Official Jet Li Website

Simma Park is a writer and designer living in New York. She writes regularly on film for Culturekiosque.

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