Once Upon a Time in China
Director: Tsui Hark
Stars: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Kent Cheng, Jacky Cheung, Yuen Biao
Jet Li stars as Wong Fei-Hung, a doctor whose knowledge of kung-fu and dedication to the "little people" made him into a folk hero in China. The film takes place during the tumultuous times before the Chinese revolution in 1918, where an influx of foreign powers was beginning to split the Chinese into factions. Some want to embrace the newcomers, while others want to push them away and keep China "pure" -- some just want to make as much money as they can. Wong finds himself caught in the middle between greedy foreigners, corrupt officials and naïve countrymen. As head of the local militia, Wong must decide what side to align himself with in order to keep China safe.
My little plot summary doesn't really do this film justice. It is quite a complex plot and trying to boil it down to a couple of sentences is next to impossible. In fact, the plot is so complex that those people who don't have some knowledge of Chinese history will probably be lost (think how someone watching a film about Paul Revere might feel if they didn't know about US history). But the script is solid enough so that the film doesn't become too complex as to lose the viewer.
At its heart, though, what propels OUATIC are the action sequences. Suffice to say Jet Li has never looked better -- literally. Of course, his martial arts skills are great and he's convincing as a kung-fu master. The fights in OUATIC, which range from brawls between dozens of people to intense, high-flying one-on-one battles, are expertly choreographed and performed. But -- perhaps more importantly -- director Tsui Hark, one of the most powerful people in the HK film industry, spared no expense on this film (at least in terms of the Hong Kong film industry, where budgets are miniscule compared to Hollywood's). It simply looks better than most any other HK kung-fu film before or since, even newer special-effects laden movies like The Stormriders. OUATIC's camera and editing techniques in particular are phenomenal and play a vital role in separating this film from others of this kind. Even the burly Kent Cheng (who plays Porky, one of Wong's students) looks like a kung-fu powerhouse in front of Tsui's lens.
The other members of the cast, including Jacky Cheung (as a Chinese/American doctor named So) and Yuen Biao (as Fong, an acrobatic actor who turns against Wong) put in good performances as well. It's a pretty rare occurrence when an ensemble cast could perform within a martial arts movie, but Tsui manages to put a good balance between all the characters, so none of them seem superfluous or unnecessary. Also, it was really nice seeing a romantic subplot in a movie that didn't overpower the scenes around it. The scenes with Wong and Aunt Yee (Kwan) are actually handled with tenderness and care, unlike the hammy melodrama present in most other films.
Once Upon a Time in China is simply one of the best martial arts films ever made. If you haven't seen it, you're missing out on a special treat that showcases some of Tsui Hark and Jet Li's best work.
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