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Original Title:
Wong Fei Hung

Hong Kong 1991

Martial Arts, Action, Comedy

Tsui Hark

Jet Li
Yuen Biao
Rosamund Kwan
Kent Cheng
Jacky Cheung
Yen Shi-Kwan
Lau Shun
Jimmy Wang
Steve Tartalia
Jonathan Isgar
Mark King

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Once Upon a Time in China

Story: China is undergoing a historical change. Western powers are overrunning the country and introduce new technologies like steam-power or guns. The Chinese people aren't prepared for the technological superiority of the foreign powers and are therefore dominated and bullied mostly by Americans and the British. However, one man tries to act as an agent between the different cultures with a lot of skill and diplomacy: the martial artist and healer Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li). Yet, when his students get into an outright brawl with a local gang of bandits thanks to the involvement of the theater actor Leung Fu (Biao Yuen), the police force paid by the foreigners finally has the justification it needs to shut down Wong's school and to render him harmless once and for all. When the leader of the bandits wants to do business with the Americans and promises to deliver them prostitutes for America for which purpose he kidnaps numerous women, among them Wong's "Aunt" Yee (Rosamund Kwan), the national hero Wong is putting diplomacy on hold and tries to save the women by force. He can't expect any help from the corrupt city administration, though. Furthermore, the dangerous martial arts master Yim (Yen Shi-Kwan) is thwarting his plans. But when it comes to justice the usually peace-loving Wong is ready to fight any time.

Review: "Once Upon a Time in China" is without a doubt a classic. One of those movies that aroused my interest in Asian movies and martial arts when still being a teenager. However, the movie isn't really a masterpiece of movie history. The biggest problem of director Tsui Hark's epic around the hero Wong Fei-Hung is the crude mix of martial arts, slapstick and history lesson. It's instantly striking the eye that the movie is a bit overambitious, overloaden and unfocused. The director is very fluttering concerning where he actually wants to put his focus on in his film. This becomes apparent in the oftentimes very amateurish editing as well. This also stands in strong contrast to some really beautiful shots and camera work. The content of the movie is very uneven quality-wise and that's what makes it difficult to give a clear recommendation, but apart from the obvious flaws the film delivers innovative fight scenes and good comedy. Therefore, depite all this justified criticism "Once upon a Time in China" manages to do one thing the best: entertain.

The historical figure Wong Fei-Hung was a physician and committed himself to helping the ill and poor. In Tsui Hark's movie his martial arts skills are placed emphasis on and they are in fact brought to such perfection By Wong that there is actually no one who is really a threat to him. Even against master Yim he never really has to worry about losing. This bestows something exaggeratedly heroical upon his character, as it may have been intended, but this also destroys any tension. At least there are some western guns that could pose a threat to Wong, but even here it seems pretty much impossible from the very beginning that Wong is brought down by a bullet just like that. A classical fight of good against evil in which good will prevail in the end. Since this is a story around a national hero, as already stated, this fact isn't really that annoying, actually at some points we even have the feeling to attend some history lesson in which we follow the invincible Wong through the turmoil of a nation forced to undergo radical changes, changes that let the poor and weak get the short straw, of course.

Here the real strength of the movie shines through. Many westerners might not know what the Chinese had to endure and how they had to suffer because of us. At some points Tsui Hark also draws a pretty differentiated picture of this fact, even though it hasn't got the impact on the audience it could have had because of a missing narrational structure. Still, it will open our eyes a bit. For most part the Americans and British have to serve as villians for this purpose as they seemingly find extreme pleasure in exploiting and deceiving the Chinese. The foreign actors don't deserve any words of praise, but at least they don't really turn the movie into a laughing matter.
This brings us to the humor, because it can really be ridiculous, but in a pleasent way. There is a lot to laugh, naturally every time when two different cultures clash, but also thanks to the supporting characters and the energetic dialogues. The frequent situational comedy adds a lot to the entertainment value of the movie.

Jet Li embodies Wong with quite some charisma, yet he oftentimes seems simply too young for the benevolence and wisdom inherent in his character. Yuen Biao only gets a raw deal, but we only might get this impression because the director arbitrarily shifts his focus from one character to another and we never can be sure who is actually important for the story and who isn't. Yuen seems to play a key role in the events unfolding later on, but we never would have guessed at the beginning. But these are maybe just some minor flaws. The biggest ones are the unusually high-contrast shifts from slapstick to deadly serious crimes, especially the extent of brutality executed by the foreigners on the Chinese. It also seems as if the script writers did come up with one idea after another which the director simply build into his movie by adding some extra shots and cutting them into his film. This leads to the problem that the movie has no inner structure, often seems overloaden only to completely lose its focus in the end. With the two hours mark exceeding this can also become a rather lengthy experience.

Apart from the extraordinary depiction of violence on women, especially on Rosamund Kwan, the fighting scenes are most memorable. However, not because of their fantastic choreography, as there are definitely better movies when it comes to this alone, but because of the impressive inventiveness. The fight at the end with the numerous ladders has earned its place in the heads of martial arts fans already. The excessive use of wires and the at times hectical camera work are somewhat annoying, though.
When everything is said and done it has to be pointed out that "Once Upon a Time in China" deserves its good reputation and doesn't deserve it at the same time. The film remains a classic of the genre but because of the mentioned flaws it seems as if it is hyped by most critics. Nonetheless, an interesting martial arts movie, that offers a slight taste of depth thanks to its historical/political groundwork, even though it simply wants to entertain in the end.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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