Late 1800s Foshan, Guangdong: Wong Fei Hung/Jet Li trains men in martial arts to help defend against foreign powers already holding Hong Kong and Macau. He looks after cute 13th Aunt, who's just returned from England. Lots of fight scenes.
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Set in late 19th century Canton this martial arts film depicts the stance taken by the legendary martial arts hero Wong Fei-Hung (1847-1924) against foreign forces' (English, French and American) plundering of China. When Aunt Yee arrives back from America totally westernised, Wong Fei-Hung assumes the role of her protector. This proves to be difficult when his martial arts school and local militia become involved in fierce battles with foreign and local government. As violence escalates even Aunt Yee has to question her new western ideals, but is it possible to fight guns with Kung Fu?Written by
Michele Wilkinson, University of Cambridge Language Centre, <email@example.com>
Once Upon a Time in China is quite simply one of the best films ever to come out of Hong Kong from almost every perspective.
Jet Li stars in the role he was born to play (in my opinion), real-life martial arts master, doctor and commander of the local militia, Wong Fei-Hung. Despite not even being able to speak Cantonese his acting in this just using facial expression, and body language is highly impressive, conveying a man of great dignity and command above the real age of Jet Li, answering the critics who considered him too young for the role. It must have been a difficult role for him to take on, with Kwan Tak-Hing (played Wong Fei Hung in around 100 films) and Jackie Chan (Drunken Master I and II) being his predecessors.
The story is very complex - possibly a little too complex - and transcends a good many martial arts films whose plots can easily be summed up in a single sentence. Wong Fei-Hung has to deal with American slavers, local gangs, a renegade martial arts master and even his own wayward (but well-intentioned students). On top of this he has to contend with his growing affection for Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) which is important as it is set around the end of the 19th century when there were great social changes in China. This is typified with his relationship with his aunt who is not related to him by blood, but with whom it would be taboo to marry. The fact that this is a series of films allows the relationship to develop also sets it apart from many Hong Kong films where any romances are usually very fast-moving and unrealistic.
The rest of the cast is extremely good, slightly more so than later episodes. The wonderfully athletic Yuen Biao plays Leung Foon, a trainee actor who wants to learn kung fu to protect himself - it is a shame he allegedly fell out with director Tsui Hark over screen time as his replacement in subsequent films is comic but has not got the martial arts skills. Kent Cheng is perfect for the role of the larger-than-life Lam Sai-Wing who is Wong Fei Hung's head student. His other students are played with vigour by Jacky Cheung and Yuen Kam-Fai.
The villains are suitably colourful, and the lead bad guy played by Yam Sai-Kun is interesting because he is not as two-dimensional as he could have been and is almost a double for Wong Fei-Hung and what he could have become had he gone down the wrong path.
The action is superb which is unsurprising considering it is choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, though critics will still fault the wire-work and use of doubles. The final showdown is a masterpiece of editing as Jet Li was injured and had to be doubled for many of the shots that weren't above the waist, but his fist techniques make up for this. The film has a long running time for a martial arts flick so for once there is plenty of time for story and action.
An honourable mention has to go the music written by James Wong, as it is one of the greatest and most memorable of all martial arts theme music.
In short they don't come much better than this. People who enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would probably love this and it should also be seen by anyone who has seen Cradle 2 the Grave and thinks Jet Li can't act. The first 2 sequels for this are also warmly recommended.
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