Once Upon A Time In China

1991 (Also known as Wong Fei Hung)
running time: 134 minutes

Director: Hark Tsui

Kung Fu Choreography:
Yuen Woo Ping
Liu Chia Liang

Jet Li
Biao Yuen
Rosamund Kwan
Steve Tartalia
Jacky Cheung
Kent Cheng
Yee Kwan Yan

If you want more of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 's combination of martial arts, amazing photography and moving story, this is a good place to start.

The Verdict

This film combines a great historical and cultural storyline with some jaw dropping Kung Fu and action sequences. At times it is truly moving for the brutality of the treatment of the Chinese people by western officials. You don’t have to be a Martial Arts junkie or Jet Li fan to enjoy this, the film is amazing for its story and acting as well. I would advise English speakers avoid the dubbed version, not only do you lose some realism, but the script is also far more simplified than that used in the subtitles.

The Plot

This is the story of a legendary Chinese hero, Wong Fei Hung, played by Jet Li. It is the first of a series of 6 (and counting) and in my opinion the best, with Once upon a time in China II coming a close second. The story is set at the time of western colonisation of China. It deals with the effects colonisation had on the Chinese culture. Special emphasis is given to the way firearms affected the balance of power, reducing the effectiveness of Kung Fu.

Wong Fei Hung is a Doctor, Intellectual and Martial Artist. He runs a medical centre and trains the local militia to defend themselves against street gangs and thugs. As westerners come and take control of the city, Wong increasingly finds his militia getting in fights with a street gang, which the new authority blames on him. Meanwhile, another highly accomplished martial artist comes to challenge Wong. Many of the American Colonists are highly corrupt. They fear Wong Fei Hung's influence and that he may expose their corruption. As such they plan to kill him. As if that wasn’t enough for Wong to deal with, he is also entrusted with the care of a young and attractive relative-by-marriage, Aunt Yee (played by Rosamund Kwan). Aunt Yee has studied in America and become westernised, and at times has difficulty fitting in with either Chinese or Western circles, a very dangerous situation to be in during such troubled times.

As a westerner watching this movie, I gained a lot of insight into the Chinese perspective of colonisation. Westerners are not always depicted as evil, in particular a Christian missionary does something quite heroic. I cannot speak for the historical accuracy of the events or characters depicted, but nevertheless it is very interesting to see how western inventions are absorbed and rejected by the Chinese people. The film left me with a very negative feeling about the effects of firearms on a society where being physically powerful meant someone was at least devoted to their training, if not righteous.

The Action

If you were impressed by the kung fu in The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or you’re a Jet Li fan, you really should hunt down this film. Woo-ping Yuen did the choreography for both of those films as well as many other greats, but his work on those pales in comparison to what he achieved here when working with many highly trained martial artists. If you thought the rather daft tree fighting sequence in the end of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was beautiful, the ladder sequence at the end of this will blow you away. The film features stunts that, rather than being a show of pure power like most action films, have beauty and timing to rival that of a ballet.

Cast info from IMDB
Note: If you are Chinese and/or have good historical knowledge of the events in China at this time, I for one would like to see it noded! :-)