#202 Once Upon A Time In China

(1991, Hark Tsui)

“No matter how good our kung-fu is, it will never defeat guns”

Once Upon A Time In China is mentioned in the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die as being a grand celebration of Chinese history, a meticulous, breath-taking masterpiece which revitalises Chinese folk history and is a milestone in Hong Kong cinema. Which is interesting, because that doesn’t feel like the film I watched.

Once Upon A Time In China is about Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), as he begins to recruit members for a militia group designed to fight against the invading foreigners from Britain and America. There’s a local gang involved in human trafficking, a mysterious martial arts master named Iron Fist Yim seeking to battle Wong to prove his strength, and a battle against the American invaders with their new-fangled guns and stuff.

If that plot summary sounded unenthusiastic, it’s largely because I barely remember much of a plot at all in this movie. Stuff pretty much just happened for the sake of stuff happening. Jet Li punched some men. A fat man kept falling over. Jet Li fought another man with some ladders. The dubbing was bad. Basically, it was your typical over the top kung fu movie, so I have no idea why the film is held up as such an artistic masterpiece. Sure, it’s fun to watch, but a “masterpiece”? No.

As I stated, there was a plot, but it was mostly an excuse for Jet Li to leap about and kick people in the face. There were too many characters to keep track of, and their relationship with each other was increasingly confusing and never really sufficiently explained. Although the local gang were apparently working with the Americans, there was no real indication of this in the actual movie, and I have honestly no idea why Yim is there at all.

As for historical accuracy and reverence to Chinese folk history, I saw none of that. This was a very silly movie. Jet Li’s friend Porky Wing (yes, really) is a fat man who falls down a lot and looks grumpy. He also has a Chinese American friend called Bucktooth who can’t read Chinese despite working as a doctor in China. At one point, Jet Li wears a disguise that makes him look like a cross between Jean Reno in The Professional and Mary Poppins (he even uses an umbrella as a glider). And also, Jet Li kills a man by flicking a bullet into his forehead. He uses his hand as a gun. Jet Li. Uses his hand. As a gun. Let that sink in.

Is it entertaining? Oh hell yes. It’s a silly kung fu movie, of course it’s entertaining. It features ridiculously bad dubbing, over the top fights that defy all sense of physics, a plot that makes little sense but helpfully colour-codes everyone so we know who to root for, and there are plenty of moments where men who aren’t good at fighting flail around while in trouble. It’s a blast, assuming you like silly chop socky action.

It certainly deserves its place on the list too, since it cemented Jet Li as a credible action star in Hong Kong cinema, but I am honestly baffled by the critical reception that claimed this was a ground-breaking piece of artful cinema. It’s not. This is not Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Do not go into this movie thinking it’s a great art piece pondering China’s folk history and the political ramifications of foreign invaders, despite how much other reviewers want you to think it is. It’s a silly martial arts movie. It’s an entertaining silly martial arts movie, but that’s about as far as it goes.

There are some absolutely great set-pieces here, assuming you can suspend your disbelief for the entire time. There’s The Battle Of The Ladders, where Wong and Yim battle on a stack of ladders while throwing more ladders at each other, there’s a fun battle to the death between Yim and some other guy in front of a bonfire that resembles a game of Tekken at times, and there’s some fun street fighting action too. It’s certainly a technical marvel, and for that it should be praised.

But on every other point, it’s silly. I know I keep saying this, but the massive disconnect between the movie’s marketing and the movie itself is preventing me from being any more coherent. Once Upon A Time In China is a great romp, but that’s it. If you like crazy kung fu movies, this’ll be right up your alley because it is certainly one of the best, but if you don’t, then steer clear. It’s as simple as that.

Starring Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung, Rosamund Kwan & Kent Cheng
Written by Tsui Hark, Yuen Kai-Chi, Leung, Yiu-ming & Dang Bik-min
Produced by Tsui Hark
Music by James Wong
Cinematography by David Chung, Bill Wong, Chan Tung-cheun, Angy Lam, Tung Cheun & Wilson Chan
Edited by Mak Chi-sin

Favourite Scene: For all its silliness, that ladder fight was pretty entertaining.
Scene That Bugged Me: Jet Li uses his hand as a gun!

Watch it if: You like good silly kung fu movies
Avoid it if: You believe that it’s going to be a work of great art

Posted on July 16, 2013, in 1990s, Action, Adventure, China and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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