By Guest Contributor James Baysinger
‘Once Upon A Time In China’ is a martial arts movie starring a very young Jet Li as Wong Fei-hung, an expert martial artist and doctor, and who also happens to be a Confucian. This is the movie that jump-started Jet Li’s great acting career. Although he had played in several previous movies, “Once Upon A Time In China” is the one that catapaulted him into superstardom. At just over two hours runtime, it gives you plenty of time to pop some corn, curl up with your loved one and enjoy one of the most funny, action-packed kung-fu movies ever made.
Jet Li stars as the infamous Wong Fei-hung, the best martial artist in the land. Yen Shi-Kwan plays Master Yim, whose hilarious exploits frequently interfere with Wong’s agenda. Yuen Biao plays Leung Fu, a bad guy who turns good. Rosamund Kwan portrays the lovely and Westernized Aunt Lee, who becomes Leung Fu’s object of desire, and eventually falls for Wong. Buck Teeth Sol, who is played by Jacky Cheung, is one of Wong’s hilarious sidekicks, the other being Porky Lang, who is played by Kent Cheng.
Directed by Tsui Hark, ‘Once Upon A Time In China’ features the exploits of Wong Fei-hung as he battles outsiders, falls in love, and creates witty statements. This movie has it all: action, comedy, romance, and history, and it provides us with an inside glimpse of how Western civilization influenced and affected Asian culture. Wong Fei-hung is a legend of sorts in Asian film history, as he has been portrayed in films dating back to the 1940s. His character has also previously been played by the world’s no.1 action icon, Jackie Chan.
The movie begins with an attack from an outside Western force. Set in 1875 China, the movie portrays the effects of, and reaction of locals to the Western influence, as they attempt to hold strong to their own Asian culture. British and American forces continue to attack the locals as they wish to embed their brand of civilization. Wong creates a local militia to stand against the invaders. However, there is a local gang, the Sha Ho gang, who welcome the Western invaders, and even collaborate with them in efforts to have Wong and his fighters framed for local terrorist attacks.
One comedic, yet annoying, character is Master Yim, who is played by Yen Shi-Kwan. Master Yim wants to take over Wong’s status as the best martial artist in the land, and continues to get in the way at very inopportune times.
Yuen Biao plays Leung Fu, a member of the Sha Ho gang who is in cahoots with the Western fighters, and falls in love with Aunt Yee, played by Rosamund Kwan. The Western fighters strike a deal with the Sha Ho gang to kidnap Asian women and ship them to the United States. One of the women the gang kidnaps is Aunt Yee, which of course draws the ire of Leung Fu. He leaves the Sha Ho gang, and joins forces with Wong to save Aunt Lee, and deal with the foreign invading forces. Aunt Yee falls for Wong, which of course causes some tension, as their romance is strictly forbidden according to Chinese customs. It should be noted they are not related by blood. Yee continues to get into trouble with the Sha Ho gang, and Wong and Fu must rescue her numerous times.
Wong has two associates, Buck Teeth Sol, who is played by Jacky Cheung, and Porky Lang, who is played by Kent Cheng. These two characters provide the main bulk of comic relief, as their names imply. Their action-packed fight scenes are fierce, yet highly amusing -truly kung fu fighting at its riotous best!
Wong and his local fighters are very underpowered, as the Western attackers have many weapons including guns, while the Chinese defenders use only martial arts skills and creativity. The final fight scene is between Wong and Kim, and rest assured it is one of the most epic kung fu scenes of its time.
A true Chinese cinema classic, “Once Upon A Time In China” fulfils every kung-fu enthusiast’s quest for action, adventure, spectacular fight choreography, well-integrated comedy, romance, and a decent plot. The film won the Hong Kong Award for Best Picture, while Director Tsui Hark won the Hong Kong Award for Best Director. It showcased the incredible acting and onscreen fighting talents of Jet Li, and set his acting career in motion. “Once Upon A Time In China” is one of those truly great, timeless classics that one can easily just get stuck into again and again!
- Throughout Wong Fei-Hung’s legendary tales, he has been a practitioner of Hung Gar kung fu. However, the techniques utilized by Jet Li in the film are comprised of mostly Tai Chi and Long Fist technique.