Friday, November 17, 2017

Once Upon a Time in China

Huang Feihong; action, Hong Kong / China, 1991; D: Tsui Hark, S: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung, Rosamund Kwan

Foshan, China, 19th century. Martial artists Wong Fei-hung cannot tolerate the British and American colonialists who are imposing their rule on the area more and more, exploiting the land and the people. He also has to take care of his 13th aunt, Siu-kwan. The criminal Shaho Gang teams up with the American official Jackson in order to get rid of Wong, but their assassination attempt during an opera performance fails. They kidnap Siu-kwan in order to use her and many other women for human trafficking, but Wong and his apprentices, Wing, So and Kai save her. In a fight, Wong defeats Yim and kills Jackson.

The originator of the popular Hong Kong movie hexalogy which spanned another five sequels in the next six years, "Once Upon a Time in China" was a smash hit in 1991, and even though it features a thin (and decisively overlong) storyline which is basically just an excuse for the virtuoso martial arts fights featuring Jet Li, it still holds up well today. One of the ingredients that probably appealed to the audience was the element of patriotism embodied in the folk hero Wong Fei-hung who rebelled against the British colonialism and irredentism, turning into a "Chinese Hasan Israilov", yet director Tsui Hark refused to turn the film into a Hong Kong version of "Braveheart" and instead delivered a relaxed, unassuming and fun little action flick without pathos, thereby avoiding any potential accusations of Xenophobia. The film is unusually humorless and bitter at times, especially in the sequences where the foreigners capture the 13th aunt to use her as a prostitute for human trafficking, yet the movie's energy and vitality are assured in several great battle sequences, from Wong using his umbrella to fight off a bad guy to him and the villain Yim swinging from ladder to ladder across the warehouse. Hark has sympathy for the Wuxia mythology, yet concedes that times are changing with the turn of the century in the sequence where one fighter is shot by a bullet, and before his death says this to the shocked Wong who is holding his bloody hand: "Our kung fu cannot compete with their guns!" It may be a considered as a dark commentary on the Wuxia genre which was slowly disappearing at that time. All the actors delivered a good job, which together with a few neat camera moves and lighting choices give an overall good impression of "Once Upon a Time in China", which took on a heavy theme, yet presented it in a light way.

Grade;++

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