Thursday, January 24, 2013

Once Upon a Time in China

Once Upon a Time in China
Director: Hark Tsui
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Chan, Yuen Biao

I always think that it’s good for me to stretch myself with the movies I see, and 1001 Movies is a fantastic way to do that.  Still, there are movies and genres I typically find more tiresome than anything else.  While I think the dramatic and beautiful martial arts dramas that have come out of China in the last decade are fantastic, watching their predecessors is a bit of a grueling experience.

The story told in Once Upon a Time in China focuses on Wong Fei Hung (Li), a Chinese historical hero.  Wong didn’t understand the desire to Westernize Hong Kong, and fought the imperialism encroaching from various forces (in this film, mostly British and American).  But the story also delves into some in-fighting between an apparently corrupt local government and Wong’s pure-of-heart band of warriors, a local militia.  There’s a follower, Foon (Yuen), and a love interest, Aunt Yee (Kwan) along the way.

At least, that’s what I think the movie is about.  Rarely have I seen a movie as stupidly difficult to follow as this one.  The battle against foreign entrepreneurs and slave traders in order to preserve Chinese cultural integrity works just fine; I got that message, loud and clear, as randomly presented as it was.  But the warring factions among the Chinese were never fully explained, people appear out of nowhere with backstories that are, at best, glossed over, and characters change allegiance for no apparent reason.  The film left me with a perpetual look of confusion on my face.  By the time I thought I had things figured out, the bad guys were suddenly good guys and I was all, “Wait, WHAT?!?”  It becomes exhausting, watching a film this way.  With a substandard DVD transfer, low budget subtitles (in the version I watched, Aunt Yee was Aunt 13.  Aunt 13.  Really?!?), and painfully obvious and totally awkward overdubbing, this was a very crappy movie experience for me.  One of those where as soon as I put the disc in and saw the quality, the film already had a strike against it, and when I was ten minutes in and was already confused, I knew it would be a long two plus hours.

But, having said all of that, I can understand why this movie makes it into the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.  As I said in the beginning, the gorgeous Chinese fighting epics of the last decade weren’t magically born, they had to evolve from something.  Although I would never, ever want to watch this particular movie again, I can see how it led to future films like Hero, also with Jet Li.  The importance of preserving cultural heritage in the face of encroaching foreign dangers must have resonated profoundly with the Chinese at the time.  Although I hardly agree with their politics, I can understand how a movie like this would appeal to the patriotism of the people.  Given that the film is set in 1875, one of the things the outsiders bring is guns and rifles; as Wong Fei Hung says, how can kung fu compete with that?  When great warriors are brought down from afar by amateurs with a rifle, there’s a genuine feeling of loss and senseless cruelty.  The ability to fight using the martial arts is presented as something beyond skill; it’s a beautiful talent, a thing of art, and when that is mercilessly bulldozed by a bullet, it’s sad.  When the guns are used on civilians, though, that’s when the film gets angry.  Tsui doesn’t shy away from blood, and there’s an unexpected amount of gore in the film to underline just how horrible gun violence is.

And, of course, there’s the fighting.

Like any martial arts picture, it’s the fight choreography that stands out here.  This is Jet Li, after all, so you expect brilliance, and he doesn’t disappoint.  While there’s a little wire work, it’s used sparingly in order to focus on other fighting styles.  Personally, while I find wire work very graceful, the lack of it here helped me appreciate Li’s tireless athleticism all the more.  That dude has moves, man.  There’s a very nice slow motion battle in the rain, and the grand finale of the film where he faces off against an adversary on a series of interconnected and off balance ladders is novel and exciting. 

Ultimately, though, this is too much for me.  It’s too confusing.  I felt my brain giving up on the film very early on, and wound up playing the Countdown Game with my DVD player; never a good sign for a film.  I physically got up and left the room while leaving the movie playing, something I hardly EVER do with a movie I haven’t seen before, because I was so annoyed with the utterly ridiculous plot.  My final thoughts can be summed as such: a progenitor of more enjoyable films, but not enjoyable for me. 

Arbitrary Rating: 4/10.  Moderately interesting redeeming features are not enough to compensate for a poor transfer DVD and an unnecessarily convoluted plot.


  1. It was the extreme xenophobia in this one that eventually turned me off to it. Not only is every single foreign person evil, but even the Chinese who dress in a western style are either belittled, end up badly, or are evil themselves. This might be the earliest martial arts film I've seen that was intended for mainland China viewing (as opposed to Hong Kong), so maybe in order to get by the communist government's censorship they just piled on the anti-western world point of view.

    1. I agree with your conclusion about why such xenophobia was put into the film, and I was bothered by it as well. I guess I was just MORE bothered by the other stuff, it made me forget about the stuff I was LESS bothered by.

      I really didn't like the stupid caricatures in the film, many of whom, as you say, were westernized.