Tsui Hark's ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA is a truly dazzling achievement, even measured against Tsui's own considerable accomplishments and the hyperbolic standards of Hong Kong filmmaking, where riotous visual excess and surreal cross-cultural appropriations are the norm.
The year is 1875. Master Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), a Confucian bone setter and righteous martial artist, establishes a clinic in Canton province and takes on several apprentices, including the comic Porky Lang (Kent Cheng) and Buck Teeth Sol (Jacky Cheung). Also in the mix is beautiful Aunt Yee
(Rosamund Kwan), who has returned to China after many years abroad, bringing with her some strange and modern ideas. When Wong's clinic is burned down, he and his companions set out to right the many wrongs they see around them. A rival kung-fu master, divorced from the spiritual component of his
training, forces Wong to engage in a series of spectacular showdowns, but the real villain is creeping Westernization, embodied in the American soldiers who encourage opium addiction and coerce poor peasants to sail for America, where they'll wind up virtual slaves to the railroad barons.
For fans of Hong Kong films, Tsui Hark is a superstar on the level of a Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. Born in Vietnam and trained at the University of Texas, he has written, directed, and produced dozens of the most striking Hong Kong movies never seen in US theaters. The adventures of Master
Wong are a longtime staple of Hong Kong genre cinema, so for Chinese viewers ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA is a revisionist exercise in the vein of YOUNG GUNS: the characters, settings, and situations are familiar, but they're all delivered with a distinctly contemporary twist. The title, with its
knowing nod to Sergio Leone's remaking of American national fables, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, is the tip-off that Tsui's aim is to dust off old genre conventions and present them, refreshed and revitalized, to a new generation of movie buffs.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA is a virtual non-stop festival of kung-fu display. Battles are staged in spectacular locales: at the opera, where the bad guys hide beneath brilliant traditional costumes and make-up; in a bizarrely out-of-place European-style restaurant; and in an enemy fortress full of
ladders, which are deployed to astonishing effect. The action is lightning-fast (though it shows few signs of the overcranking that Hong Kong pictures often use to up the ante) and balletically staged, living up to the choreographic potential often claimed--but seldom truly realized--for martial
arts pictures by their highbrow admirers.
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: Tsui Hark's ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA is a truly dazzling achievement, even measured against Tsui's own considerable accomplishments and the hyperbolic standards of Hong Kong filmmaking, where riotous visual excess and surreal cross-cultural appropriations… (more)