Tsui Hark (director)
Eureka Films (studio)
10 December 2018 (released)
31 December 2018
Legendary director Tsui Hark’s epic ONCE UPON IN CHINA Trilogy has been bestowed with a new 4K restoration and it should make fans of martial arts superstar Je Li deliriously happy. Seldom has ancient China’s rich colour palette looked so vibrant and so sharp – almost as sharp as the bewildering amount of kicks, moves and karate chops on display here!
ONCE UPON IN CHINA (1991) stars Jet Li in the role of real-life Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei-hung and we see him battling not only imperialist forces (this is 19th century Canton) but also local rivals. Not a minute is wasted and we’re off to a rip-roaring start from the go when Liun Yongfu, Commander of the Black Flag Army, welcomes Wong Fei-hung on board his ship for a spectacular lion dance performance (papier mache lions, not real lions) and an impressive firecracker display in tow. Which is when the trouble starts for a nearby French ship mistakes the firecrackers for a direct attack on their ship and replies with opening fire… injuring some of the dancers in the process and leaving it to Wong Fei-hung to finish the performance. The Commander comments on the situation China is currently in due to foreign imperial forces intruding and hands Wong a fan bearing an inscription of all the unequal treaties signed between China and foreign countries. This sets the tone, for during the course of the film Wong, who up until now has worked as a martial arts instructor for the local militia in Foshan, soon finds himself embroiled in the dispute between traditional Chinese values and the imposed modernisation by the hands of foreign Imperialist powers. Wong also runs his own traditional Chinese medicine clinic where he has three apprentices: Porky Wing, Bucktooth So and Kai. The three characters prove to be more than just loyal apprentices as the conflicts deepen and on top of it all they have to take on the local Shaho Gang which extorts money from local businesses by means of intimidation and terror. Another on-going subplot is Wong’s ‘close friendship’ with 13th Aunt Yee Siu-kwan (Rosamund Kwan), a senior relative who dresses in European clothes and whose budding romance is restricted thanks to conservative Chinese etiquette. In yet another subplot, unassuming poor Chinese labourers are coaxed into paying extortionate sums of money for a sea passage to San Francisco where they are promised to find wealth and gold but are only greeted by ever more slavery and poverty. Although primarily an action film there are also a number of underlying political messages strewn throughout.
ONCE UPON IN CHINA II (1992) is set during the Qing dynasty in 1895 and here, Wong Fei-hung travels by train from Foshan to Canton to attend a seminar on traditional medicine. With him travels apprentice Leung Foon and of course 13th Aunt, still dressed in western clothes and trying to teach Wong and Leung how to eat steak with fork and knife. Upon their arrival in Canton they are greeted by chaotic scenes when a group of people protest against the signing of the Treaty of Shimoneski (ending the First Sino-Japanese War) while a particularly dangerous xenophobic cult called the White Lotus Sect attacks Westerners and everything considered a jeopardy to traditional Chinese culture. Soon Wong, Leung and 13th Aunt are amidst the brutal fights and it’s up to Wong to save Western refuges seeking shelter in the British Embassy which seems a trifle odd given the fact the in the original film, Wong himself was against foreign influence in China… though by now even he has to admit that “Martial arts cannot win against foreign guns…”
ONCE UPON IN CHINA III (1993) sees Wong, his love interest 13th Aunt and apprentice Leung Foon travelling again, this time from Foshan to Beijing to meet his father Wong Kei-ying. Meanwhile, 13th Aunt also meets a Russian diplomat called Tomanovsky (John Wakefield) whom she knows from her days back in old Blighty. Wong takes an instant dislike to the diplomat, not least because he dares to greet 13th Aunt by using a Western method (kissing her hand) but Tomanovsky is unfazed and presents 13th Aunt with an early film camera. Soon though he turns out to be behind a plot to assassinate a prominent Chinese diplomat and it’s up to Wong to safe the day (and the country) by entering a martial arts contest to prevent the dastardly plot.
The action sequences and stunts – courtesy of Yuen Woo-Ping – are mind-boggling and there is no let up for even one second! Jet Li does his name proud as his moves really are as fast as a jet while there’s also plenty of humour thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately the Americanised subtitles cheapen the entire affair considerably (“Fuck yeah” / “Hold that, I’m taking a s**t” / “Move it, asshole” / “Bloody awesome” etc) which, I’m almost certain, are NOT the direct translations of the usually poetic and flowery Chinese language. No wonder China has a strong desire to fight off Western influences! However, if you can see beyond that then ONCE UPON IN CHINA is an absolute gem and the set also contains countless Bonus Features!