Once Upon a Time in China
Review by YTSL
Amidst all the laudatory raves that "Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is getting in the West for being an intelligent and
mature martial arts drama, several Hong Kong films come to my mind that
I consider to be equally -- if not more -- capable of fitting that bill
which seems to have been exclusively accorded to Ang Lee's wuxia work.
The most philosophical of these would undoubtedly be "Ashes of Time".
However, Wong Kar Wai's desert epic has a few contenders -- all of them
productions that bear the imprint of Tsui Hark -- for most emotionally
powerful yet still almost bursting at the seams with messages for the mind
as well as the heart to muse and mull over.
One of these is the first ONCE UPON A TIME IN
CHINA, a packed and lengthy -- it's 134 minutes long when uncut -- celluloid
masterpiece: That I had viewed four times prior to writing this review
but -- until this last time -- never in an ideal form (due to technical
problems but also (Malaysian) censorship); and whose substantial as well
as diverse contents I have sometimes felt so overwhelmed by as to cause
me to doubt my ability to adequately describe and critique it. As
it is, there is a part of me that does wonder whether Tsui Hark would have
crammed so much into a single film if he had known that it would spawn
as many sequels as it did. Alternatively, it does seem to be an integral
part of this brilliant auteur's signature style to create multi-layered
works which mix and match genres like there's no tomorrow.
Teasing apart elements and strands of ONCE UPON
A TIME IN CHINA, here's noting that: It is pretty much a given that
any film that stars Jet Li (as the legendary healer and kungfu master,
Wong Fei Hung) will be a marvelous action spectacle; this especially so
when the work also features Yuen Biao (his Foon character is sometimes
a fool in not knowing which master's path to follow, and thus one of this
complex, involved offering's wild cards) and Yan Yee Kwan (as an impoverished
martial exponent called "Iron Vest" Yim who appears willing to do anything
to make a living) in prominent roles. Suffice to say that this cinematic
extravaganza's extended climactic battle -- which involves loads of step
ladders and rages on more than one floor -- is a guaranteed jaw-dropper.
It also will be pointed out that what passes off as secondary skirmishes
here would be oh so sweet icing on most other movies' cakes (A favorite
of mine has Jet Li giving one of his sublime demonstrations of the uses
that an umbrella can have when wielded by an innovative martial artist).
There also is humor to be found in sections of
this sprawling production. Among ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA's chief
suppliers of -- by my way of thinking, sometimes actually unnecessary --
comic relief are Kent Cheng (playing Porky, a meat seller who is one of
Wong sifu's senior kungfu disciples) and Jacky Cheung (whose Buck Tooth
So character -- an American-Chinese who has come to study the healing arts
with Master Wong -- stammers when he speaks Cantonese but is perfectly
eloquent when utilizing the English language to communicate). Quite
a bit of amusement too is to be found in the East-West culture clashes
that often ensue in the presence of a young woman Wong Fei Hung respectfully
addresses as Sap Saam Ee (i.e., 13th Aunt), who -- at the beginning of
the film -- had just returned to China after spending two years in England
(The Convent school educated Rosamund Kwan gives this character and the
film in general more than a bit of charm, tenderness and class).
As evidenced by the following lines in a conversation
between Wong Fei Hung and his honorary aunt which took place at the same
time as the mundane measuring of a man for a suit and a romantic play with
shadows (all of which involved the same two individuals), ONCE UPON A TIME
IN CHINA additionally contains quite a lot of cultural and outright political
arguments, contemplations and discussions:-
"Why do we have to learn from the West?"
At the risk of overstating my case, this (re)viewer
will strongly suggest that whoever sees this multi-faceted film as merely
-- or even primarily -- an action flick is missing out on so much that
its makers seek, and it has, to offer. Ditto with regards to those
who are apt to overly-simplify and dismiss its director-producer's political
stance as virulently anti-Western. Instead, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA
comes across to me as a simultaneously nuanced as well as colorful -- yet
also at times painfully and unsettlingly dark visioned -- piece of work;
a visual, verbal and musical presentation that contains so many symbolic
as well flamboyant elements, in combinations that provide one with a grand
feast for the eyes but also much food for thought and emotional -- sometimes
even soulful -- sustenance.
"They invented things like the steam engine
and many other things. If we don't learn (from them), we will get
"When you get the chance, tell me more
about how great the outside world is."
"...Everything will change. China
will change with the world."
The fact that this is the sort of cultural
political debate that continues to occur in East Asia, among high officials
of national governments as well as ordinary people, makes many of the thrusts,
parries and points contained in this historical costumed production salient
now as well as in the Ching dynastic period that is this offering's temporal
My rating for the film: 9.5