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Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: Once Upon a Time in China

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[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]

As we round out a full year of me taking a look back at Kung Fu classics, I notice that there is a glaring omission of one famous star across my various columns. How have I managed to not speak about Jet Li in any capacity? It makes sense why I would have covered Bruce Lee twice and Jackie Chan is absolutely more known in America, but Jet Li is a tremendous force in China that helped legitimize Wushu (China’s national sport) and would go on to revive the country’s film industry in the 90s.

Case in point, the 1991 release Once Upon a Time in China, directed by the legendary Tsui Hark. Often heralded as the pinnacle of Wire-fu films, this film presents a fictionalized retelling of folk hero Wong Fei-Hung’s life that deals with themes of westernization, colonization, and the encroachment of modern technology in a peaceful land. It’s quite the loaded movie and even enters the dreaded “political” territory that the internet so hates.

Having not really watched the film since 2005 when I first discovered Jet Li’s Chinese films, I was interested in discovering if the film held up. I also can’t quite take my mind off the ridiculous political situation the United States has been broiled in, with many fighting to bring back some golden era that never really existed. Remembering that Once Upon a Time in China was all about a similar topic, I figured now was the best possible chance to relive this classic film.

For the most part, the film does still hold up. Just a year into a new decade and Tsui Hark had introduced a brand-new method of capturing martial arts on film that amplified what came before. While I still prefer the 80s style of a more raw, grounded approach, one cannot deny that the sight of Jet Li flying through the air in fast motion is exhilarating. By attaching actors to wires, Hark was able to create an almost godlike quality to the movements of his characters. It may not be traditional or realistic, but with modern films being borderline incomprehensible with their quick cuts and close-up shots, I’ll take a more fantastical fighting style any day of the week.

The main plot is where things start to unravel a bit. The film begins perfectly fine with a lion dance presentation that sums up the central theme of the movie in three minutes. In the bay of Foshan, China, during the late 19th century, a Chinese vessel is holding a ceremony to impress legendary martial artist Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) with their skills. After sounding some firecrackers, a nearby French ship assumes the noise is gunfire and starts to retaliate against the Chinese. As one of the dancers is shot, Fei-Hung quickly jumps into action and completes the dance himself.

It doesn’t take a scholar to figure out that Once Upon a Time in China is all about how Kung Fu can co-exist in the modern era. Hell, the film even gets really blatant with this by including lines such as, “No matter how good our Kung Fu is, it will never defeat guns.” It’s an ever-present theme throughout the course of the film that does more to guide the narrative than any actual dialogue or characters.

Once Upon a Time in China

For those that aren’t exactly up on their Chinese history, Wong Fei-Hung was a physician and martial artist that lived through 19th century China and into the early 20th century. Having been alive through many tumultuous periods of rapid change and westernization along with the fall of the final Chinese dynasty, he has become something of a folk hero for standing up for the traditional Chinese way of living. Needless to say, numerous films that romanticize his life have been made in the years since his death.

Since his life happens to coincide with such an exciting and unpredictable time, it makes sense that these films would typically focus on the upheaval of traditional values and the embracing of new values. As a matter of fact, right after the explosive opening number, Once Upon a Time in China sets the stage with a rather hectic street shot. Chinese patrons are eating at a diner, listening to traditional Chinese music while some Jesuit priests are roaming around loudly singing “Hallelujah.” There are Americans peddling fake contracts on street corners hoping to coax people into forking over their cash. The British have their armies patrolling around as if they somehow became the local militia. It’s a chaotic mess of different cultures all slammed into this small space.

Clearly, that wouldn’t be enough to carry an almost 150-minute film, so a more conventional plot starts to crop up. After two years away in America, Fei-Hung’s distant cousin, Siu-Kwan (Rosamund Kwan), returns and brings with her some fancy new technology from abroad. Introducing the Chinese to the camera, she offers to take a picture of Fei-Hung and his uncle. The camera explodes, but Fei-Hung is able to avert disaster by reacting quickly. Again, there’s that “Kung Fu can co-exist” theme in action.

At the same time as this is all going down, a traditional Chinese opera troupe pulls into town and is looking to make some cash during this wild time. Leung Foon (Yuen Biao) is known for having some solid Kung Fu skills and hears the tale of Fei-Hung’s legendary prowess. Wishing to expand his knowledge of the martial arts, he begins to search for Fei-Hung and runs into some of his disciples. After a comedic encounter that showcases Biao’s top-notch acrobatic skills, he storms off in a huff before anything else goes wrong.

I’m going to cut this summary short because I’ll be explaining a lot to get to the point. What you need to know is that Fei-Hung also runs the local militia and in a mix-up caused by a local gang, gets stripped of his duties and put under house arrest by the Manchurian authorities. He then gets sent on a path to clear his name but shit keeps hitting the fan and making things worse. It’s almost comical how badly Fei-Hung messes up, but it all works to that central theme. With foreigners in their land, the traditional methods of dealing with problems are fading away and leaving relics like Fei-Hung in the dust.

One particularly noteworthy scene that drives this home is when Foon is roaming the streets of Foshan and happens upon a martial arts master by the name of Yim (Yen Shi-Kwan). Since he has no home and is forced to perform on the street like a common dog, we get to watch him slowly grovel for coins thrown by foreigners after displaying some incredible martial prowess. It’s saddening because just a decade earlier, Yim would have been a well-respected and sought-after master. Now, he’s been reduced to gutter trash.

That informs the back half of the plot, which sees Foon team up with Yim and try to steal some of Fei-Hung’s thunder. That’s my biggest issue with Once Upon a Time in China, as a whole. Running at such an absurdly long length, the film feels like a bunch of different projects cobbled together to create a single film. Reading into the history of filming this project, that actually makes perfect sense. Because of how busy the Hong Kong film industry was at the time, Hark had to film the movie in sections as different actors had their schedules clear up. In essence, we’re getting a serialized TV show stitched together into a longer film and it most definitely drags after an hour in.

Where this is most noticeable is with the character development. Fei-Hung barely evolves from his stoic mannerisms in the beginning, but a weird love triangle between Fei-Hung, Siu-Kwan, and Leung Foon ends up going literally nowhere after the seeds get planted early on. Master Yim’s heel turn into a villain also feels incredibly contrived, though it speaks to how Chinese people were fighting themselves to the delight of foreign powers (something that happens in numerous films during the course of the film). Everything is thematic, but not necessarily cohesive.

At least now, we’ve come to the part of this column that I always love talking about: fight scenes. There’s not a tremendous amount of them in the beginning, but once things get kicked off in the second half, Once Upon a Time in China features a boatload of battles that showcase some electric editing and fanciful footwork. It really is the highlight of this movie and can almost be read as the conclusion the narrative wants you to draw. By mixing the old and new together, Hark was able to create something that not only upheld tradition but birthed something truly spectacular.

I’m sure most of the readers here have seen The Matrix, what with it being possibly the biggest Hollywood film of 1999. Combining slow-motion with Kung Fu in a slick sci-fi setting, a lot of its wire-work owes credit to Once Upon a Time in China. While not completely unseen in the Chinese film industry before this film, Jet Li’s talents 100% cemented it as the de facto way of making films for an entire generation of filmmakers.

The fight choreography even smartly evolves as the movie progresses, starting with some restraint before culminating in a battle where Jet Li is flying between ladders suspended in the air. After so many realistic films in the genre, Hark’s work was likely seen as a breath of fresh air and possibly even something that spoke to the tradition of wuxia films. It’s a brilliant mixture of different styles that looks fantastic on screen.

That’s not to say every bit of the movie is flawless, but Once Upon a Time in China is most definitely worth a watch for those that fancy getting educated on the history of Kung Fu films. Hark would later perfect this particular story with its sequel, though an additional four sequels and a TV series would undo all of that work by devolving further and further into comedy and absurdity. Maybe it’s an undignified end for such a storied hero like Wong Fei-Hung, but it hardly left a negative impact on him or Jet Li.

Previously on…

February: Enter The Dragon
March: Come Drink With Me
April: The Prodigal Son
May: 7 Grandmasters
June:The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
July:The Big Boss
August:Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
September:Dirty Ho
October:Spooky Encounters
November:Wheels on Meals
December: Bichunmoo

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.