Once Upon a Time in China Trilogy — Blu-ray Box Set (2018)

Tsui Hark’s phenomenal martial arts trilogy finally arrives on UK Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka Entertainment! Sourced from brand new 4K restorations the movies star Jet Li as the real-life Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei-hung. Tsui Hark’s dazzling imagery and story-telling blends seamlessly with breathless martial arts choreography, setting a new standard for kung fu movies!

Trailer

Cast

Former wushu champion Jet Li stars in the role that firmly established him as one of Hong Kong’s biggest film stars, “Wong Fei-hung”. Wong Fei-hung was a real-life martial arts master who taught the Hung Gar style of kung fu, which he learned from his father, Wong Kei-ying, also a popular master. He has been portrayed in over 100 films and television productions, most famously by Kwan Tak-hing. Jackie Chan played a comic version of the character in the “Drunken Master” films.

Popular actress Rosamund Kwan arguably became best known for her role as “13th Aunt Siu-kwan” in all three films. Rosamund appeared with Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao in “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars”, and again with Chan in “Project A Part II” and “Armour of God”. Outside of the “Once Upon a Time in China” series, she also appeared with Jet Li in the films “Swordsman II” and “Dr. Wai in The Scripture with No Words”.

In the first movie, action legend and member of the famous Seven Little Fortunes opera troupe, Yuen Biao appears as Wong Fei-hung’s sidekick “Leung Foon”. Working initially as a stunt actor and double in films such as Bruce Lee‘s “Fist of Fury” in the 1970’s, Biao became a leading Hong Kong action star in his own right with roles in the movies “Knockabout”, “The Prodigal Son” and “The Iceman Cometh”. He saw his greatest successes starring alongside his “opera brothers”, Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, in the “Lucky Stars” movies as well as the hits “Project A”, “Wheels on Meals” and “Dragons Forever”. For the sequels, Hong Kong actor and singer Max Mok replaced Yuen Biao, who declined the role after the first movie.

Also in the first movie, burly actor Kent Cheng plays the famous butcher and martial arts master “Lam Sai-wing”. Cheng will be a familiar face to Hong Kong movie fans from his roles in Jackie Chan’s “Crime Story” and Donnie Yen‘s “Ip Man 2 & 3”. Martial arts movie veteran Yen Shi-kwan stars as master of Iron Robe kung fu “Yim Chun Tung”. Yen has appeared in over 130 films since the 1950’s, in titles such as “One Armed Swordsman”, “Boxer from Shantung”, “King Boxer”, “Iron Fisted Monk”, “Fearless Hyena”, and “Iron Monkey”, to name but a few. Pop star and actor Jackie Cheung plays one of Wong Fei-hung’s disciples, “Buck Tooth So”.

For the second movie, Tsui Hark brought in Donnie Yen as the villain  “Commander Lan”. Already familiar with working with fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, Donnie was ideal for director Tsui Hark to put opposite Jet Li to meet, and perhaps exceed, the action standard set by the previous film.

Chinese-born British actor and occasional film director Zhang Tielin plays the real-life historical character of “Sun Yat-sen”. David Chiang plays “Lu Haodong”, a Chinese revolutionary who is best known for designing the “Blue Sky with a White Sun” flag that became the emblem of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party). Chiang was a martial arts superstar in the 1970’s under the Shaw Brothers Studio, who appeared in over 130 films and over 30 television series. In 1972 he won the Golden Horse Award for Best Actor for his role in “Blood Brothers”. Hung Yan-yan plays the leader of the White Lotus Sect, “Priest Gao Kung”. Just like Jet Li, Hung was a multiple wushu champion. He often acted as Jet Li’s stunt double and eventually became an actor and action choreographer in his own right. He went on to play the part of “Club Foot Kwai Geuk-Chat” in “Once Upon a Time in China 3” and was the action choreographer for Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s “Double Team”.

The villain for the third film, “Chin Tin-bai” is played by Jin Chiu.

As a bonus, the Blu-ray also features Jet Li’s final turn as Wong Fei-hung in the movie “Once Upon a Time in China & America” from a 2K restoration. Directed by Sammo Hung, Rosamund Kwan and Hung Yan-yan reprise their previous roles, with American martial artist Jeff Wolfe playing a cowboy called “Billy”.

Plot

Once Upon a Time in China: In 19th Century Canton, legendary martial arts master Wong Fei-hung battles the ruthless imperialist forces determined to subjugate his nation and enslave the Chinese people.

Once Upon a Time in China 2: Wong Fei-hung faces off against the White Lotus Cult, a dangerous and xenophobic group seeking to drive all Western influences out of China. Wong’s efforts to help the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen lead to a confrontation with the deadly opponent, Commander Lan.

Once Upon a Time in China 3: Wong Fei-hung travels with 13th Aunt to Beijing to see his father. Whilst there he becomes involved in a martial arts tournament to restore national pride. However, he is drawn into a plot to murder a prominent Chinese politician that could destabilise the country.

Once Upon a Time in China & America: The sixth and final instalment plays it a little more light-heartedly as Wong Fei-hung, 13th Aunt and Club Foot journey to the Wild West to visit Buck Tooth So. They soon become embroiled in a corrupt mayor’s greedy plot and the exploitation of the Chinese immigrants living in his town.

Action

As a producer, writer and director, Tsui Hark has possibly been Hong Kong’s most influential action filmmaker. With works that include Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story, The Killer, New Dragon Gate Inn, The Swordsman and the Detective Dee movies, his films have consistently broken new ground in terms of visual style and action choreography.

By the end of the 1980’s, traditional-style kung fu movies had more-or-less fallen out of favour with local audiences. Stunt-filled cops-and-gangsters thrillers or comedy movies were the big winners at the box office. In 1991, as producer, writer and director, Tsui Hark resurrected the popular character of Wong Fei-hung for Once Upon a Time in China, a real-life Hung Gar kung fu master, who has been portrayed in over 100 films. He brought in veteran martial arts action choreographer Lau Kar-wing and later Yuen Woo-ping, to work with leading action actors Jet Li and Yuen Biao. With its authentic-looking period sets and costumes, patriotic story, top drawer acting performances, George Lam’s rousing musical score, and sumptuous camerawork, the result was one of the finest-made martial arts films of all time.

OUATIC Opening Sequence

It proved to be a huge hit with not only local audiences and critics, but also with martial arts fans around the world. “Once Upon a Time in China” firmly established Jet Li as a top box office star, re-established Yuen Woo-ping as Hong Kong’s most stylish martial arts choreographer, and is widely regarded as the movie that revitalised the craze for kung fu films in the 1990’s, peaking in 2000 with the Oscar-winning worldwide smash hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Its success led to five sequels and many, many imitators. The second film in the series upped the action ante by recruiting Donnie Yen as the villain. With onscreen action skills to match Jet Li’s, it resulted in some of the most entertaining duels of both stars’ careers.

The martial arts action in the original trilogy blends the authentic wushu and weapons skills of the main players with balletic choreography, wirework and stunning cinematography. Although there is a lot of wire enhancement, it is not as prevalent or hyperactive as in “The Swordsman” for example. There are enough genuine athletic skills on display to keep that “wow” factor in the majority of the fight scenes.

Aside from Yuen Woo-ping’s masterful choreography, Tsui Hark and the legendary cinematographer Arthur Wong light and film each fight scene like an individual piece of arthouse cinema. There is a fight shot in the rain, making stunning use of slow motion, or Iron Shirt Yim’s fire lit duel that enhances the fighter’s momentary pauses in traditional kung fu postures. The fight at the Teahouse, with Jet Li famously employing an umbrella as a weapon, the ambush at the opera, and of course the breathtaking battle between Jet Li and Donnie Yen, are just a small sample of the many dazzling action scenes throughout the series.

The extras include the interviews with Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tsui Hark, Yen Shi Kwan and John Wakefield that were previously found on the 2002 Hong Kong Legends release. However, it’s the new additions that are especially appealing. There are brand new and insightful audio commentaries for all three films from the well-respected Hong Kong movie expert, producer and casting director Mike Leeder, and filmmaker Arne Venema. They make an engaging double act and both possess an obvious passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter. Two fascinating new interviews about the movies from actors Mike Miller and John Wakefield, also feature. The discs include a couple of short but interesting documentaries about the real Wong Fei Hung. Visiting the memorial museum in Foshan, they examine his childhood and how he grew to take his place in martial arts history. Much like the movies though, most of the martial arts on display is modern wushu and not traditional Hung Gar kung fu.

A bonus disc features the Sammo Hung directed “Once Upon a Time in China & America”, the sixth and final instalment in the series. This also features an interesting “Making of” documentary. Whilst it is one of Jet Li’s weaker action films, it still delivers a couple of entertaining fight scenes and is more humorous than the previous movies.

Summary

One of the key things that struck me back in the 1990’s when I first saw these movies, was how good-looking they were, even on a grainy VHS with hard-to-read subtitles. The striking title sequence alone, featuring dozens of martial artists performing their forms on a beach in time with Jet Li, backed by composer George Lam’s stirring reworking of the famous “On the General’s Orders” folk song, could give a viewer goosebumps.

Now on Blu-ray some twenty years later, they look as stunning as ever, and stand up to the visuals of any equivalent martial arts movie of the last two decades. The colours, lighting and textures of the period sets and costumes really pop out of the screen in these high definition editions. Equally, the martial arts choreography stands as a fine testimony to some of Yuen Woo-ping’s and Jet Li’s best work of their extensive careers. The character of Wong Fei-hung was Jet Li’s defining onscreen role, to which he brought the perfect amount of nobility, patriotism, charm and of course, supreme martial arts skills. Even the political undertones in the plots still have some resonance today.

The third and sixth movies included in this set may be the weaker entries in the series but can still entertain. The strength and quality of the first two films alone is worthy of purchasing this release. They are truly some of the finest examples of Hong Kong martial arts movie entertainment, and probably Tsui Hark’s finest hour as a director.

Once again Eureka Entertainment have roundhouse-kicked all previous versions of these movies out of the ring with this package. These films have never looked better and combined with the new bonus features, is a definitive must-have box set for all martial arts action fans.

Trivia

  • In real life, Golden Harvest Producer Raymond Chow was a student of Lam Sai Wing.
  • At the 11th Hong Kong Film Awards, “Once Upon a Time in China” won for Best Director, Best Editing, Best Action Choreography and Best Original Film Score.
  • At the 12th Hong Kong Film Awards the second movie won Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Donnie Yen), Best New Performer (Hung Yan-yan), Best Action Choreography (Yuen Woo-ping), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (Arthur Wong), Best Editing and Best Original Score. It also won Best Actor (Jet Li), Best Supporting Actor (Max Mok), Best Action Choreography and Best Original Film Song at the 29th Golden Horse Film Festival.
  • For the fourth and fifth movies, Vincent Zhao (sometimes credited as Chiu Man-cheuk) played the role of Wong Fei-hung.
  • Mike Leeder, who provides the audio commentary, was also an extra in the first two films!
  • “Once Upon a Time in China” was released in Hong Kong on 15th August 1991. A box office hit, it ran for almost two months, the longest duration for any of the series, and grossed $29,672,278 HKD in Hong Kong.
  • “Once Upon a Time in China 2” was a rare instance where a sequel to a Hong Kong film earned more at the box office than its original.

Film Rating: 10/10

The “Once Upon a Time in China” Trilogy Blu-ray box set releases on Blu-ray on 10th December 2018 courtesy of Eureka Classics! You can also order your copy via Amazon. Enjoying Eureka Entertainment’s stunningly restored classics such as Drunken Master, Iron Monkey and Police Story; which other martial arts classics deserve to get a reMASTER? Let us know in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter & Instagram. (Can’t get enough of these old-school Chinese epics, excited for what 2019 will bring? We’ve got your back, stay tuned to KFK’s newsfeed, step on into the FUniverse and subscribe for videos too!)

Influenced by the movies of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Glen began training in martial arts and gymnastics in 1995. He made his first of many visits to Malaysia and Singapore in 1998 to learn Chin Woo kung fu under the supervision of Master Teng Wie Yoo. Glen is the author of "The Art of Coaching" and "Fearless The Story of Chin Woo Kung Fu", and runs a kung fu & kickboxing school in Hertfordshire, England.

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