The 1990s was a tumultuous time for Hong Kong Martial Arts cinema. Its favourite son, Jackie Chan, was too big to fail and as such he was doing whatever he wanted on Golden Harvest’s payroll, Sammo Hung was closer to a director than the action star that made his name, Yuen Biao was slowly distancing himself from the industry, and the traditional historical kung fu movie was enjoying its final days. Attempts have been made post-90s to revive this style of Chinese film, but to no avail, their industry just doesn’t have the stars to carry such projects anymore. There was one exception to the slow demise of the historical piece in the 1990s and it made a global star out of Jet Li and those films – the Once upon a Time in China trilogy, films that have been fantastically restored and re-released by Eureka.
As is often the case with big tentpole franchises, 1991’s Once upon a time in China is the best of the bunch. In which Jet Li plays Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung for the first time. The character has appeared in countless other productions over the years, in this iteration he faces the arrival of foreign groups and seeks to stop them doing what they will with the Chinese people and taking whatever they want. There are attempts to set up schools in Fonshang and the involvement of the intimidatingly monikered Iron Robe (Yen Shi-Kwan) sets up all of the moving parts. Of the series, the original probably has one of the darker outlooks as such it is probably the most guilty of the sort of political density that martial arts cinema is often accused of – it is present, but watch House of Traps (88 films), and you’ll gain a bit of context for how over-bloated this aspect can get. There can be no evading that, however, with direction by star action director, Tsui Hark, and an array of fantastically staged set pieces and a cast of hundreds, positions this first movie as a legitimate inheritor of the title – epic. A fantastic fight in the rain too, you know, just to hammer home the fact that the always visual Tsui Hark is in the director’s chair.
Fantastic fight scenes is a very natural leading in point to Once Upon a Time in China II, as the climactic fight between Donnie Yen’s arrogant military officer and Li’s Wong Fei-Hung is truly one of the best fights in cinema history – especially when its two headline acts are at the very peak of their considerable powers. I appreciate that many make this claim for their favourite fight scene, however, this one has weight and wins over those who don’t even like this style of cinema. The action in this series is all aided by wire work, not in the way that saw the penning of the phrase wire-fu, no, Tsui Hark and legendary action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping use it to accentuate power, to illustrate that there are martial arts and then there is that level above where Fei-Hung and his antagonists sit. Muscular is the perfect word in expressing what sort of kung fu movies these are.
The plot of the second one concerns a xenophobic cult called the White Lotus Sect who are out to destroy anything that isn’t Chinese, protests and underground plans to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. As I mentioned earlier, these films are political, but given that they are filled to the gills with fantastic martial artists, traditional Chinese culture, fantastic sets, and production design and they are all pulled together by a Tsui Hark at the peak of his powers deflates that byzantine story and presents something more entertaining than politically dense.
The first two are classics of their genre, number three, although good, isn’t quite to the same standard. Whether or not this is related or not, post Once upon a time III, Jet Li left for two movies and was replaced by Vincent Zhao (The Blade, True Legend) only for him to return on the sixth and final entry (more on that later). Much more comedic than the previous iterations, number 3 sees Fei-Hung move forward with his forever romantic interest 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan) and the fish out of water interactions that comes with the traditional martial artist socialising with people from overseas. Lighter this one might be, but not too light as the plot sees a secretive Russian assassination plot, themes that touch on the erosion of Chinese sovereignty by foreign imperialism and more. These are common themes in many similar titles set towards the back end of the 19th century, so that lightness of touch can be employed as others have done all of the heavy lifting. Less common is the lion dancing competition that forms a great deal of the film’s backbone. The use of Lion Dancing is present in all of these films and of the things that went away when Hong Kong action evolved from historical to contemporary, these dances are the things I, personally, miss most.
As I mentioned earlier, Jet Li left for films 4 and 5, taking a great deal of the cast and creative crew with him. He did return though, along with Rosamund Kwan, and Xiong Xin-Xin (clubfoot seven), Tsui Hark produced and the film was co-directed by Sammo Hung & Lau Kar-wing. This boxset is called the Once upon a time in China trilogy, so the fact that there is another fully restored feature in the extras is a fascinating pull for the fans. While not as good as the headline acts, its idiosyncrasies make it something of a prototype. I say that in reference to the amount of Chinese/American co-productions but also because it got the jump of a project that Jackie Chan wanted to make for years, a western kung fu movie. Western as in Shanghai Noon that wouldn’t see the light of day for another 3 years and repeats many of the same plot beats.
In this final outing Fei-Hung, 13th Aunt (his fiancee) and Clubfoot Seven have traveled across the world to America to visit an old student who has set up shop over there. Once there they are immediately attacked by native Americans and split up, Seven and 13th aunt find themselves in a town with a heavy Chinese population, a massively corrupt and racist (proto Henry Dean Morgan-looking) mayor. Fei-Hung, on the other hand, hits his head on a rock as their carriage crashes over a waterfall. Waking up he finds himself with a native American village and becomes friendly with them despite being unable to speak the same language, that’s right, this has a lost memory plotline. A plot thread that is forgotten halfway in and feels as if the creators are jettisoning events of the previous two Jet Li-less titles. An idea that gains some credibility with Clubfoot mimicking previous enemies in a fight but completely neglecting even a passing mention of entries 4 or 5.
Once upon a time in China and America is a film of two halves, literally, as after about an hour Fei-Hung gets his memory back and finds his way back to his people, at which point it feels a lot more like a Once upon a time in China film rather than a film with Jet Li dressed as Wong Fei-Hung. In this half, the plot looks at the much-reported exploitation of Chinese workers in the wild west and ends with a face-off featuring clubfoot, a sympathetic American gun-slinger called Billy (Jeff Wolfe) and Fei-Hung against a gang of Mexican bandits that are hired as part of the mayors fantastically self-motivated plans. A fight that is about the most one-sided in the franchise with Fei-Hung picking apart the leader of bandits as if a beginner at martial arts picked a fight with a grandmaster. A refreshing release of pent-up frustration for our hero whilst also being a final heroic hurrah before he disappears into the sunset – it is a western, after all.
Once upon a time in China and America isn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it is always fun to see Jet Li in the role that made his name and get involved in a type of action that sees his character totally out of his comfort zone. The films that it features as an added extra to in once upon a time in china I-III are icons of modern martial arts cinema for all the right reasons and to see them in such blistering high quality is almost payment alone for so many years in the wilderness for us kung-fu fans out there. Eureka has hit it out of the park with this release. Prior to this box set, they also issued Police Story (1 and 2) and Project A (and A 2), and now they’ve capped a real treat of a year. In 2018, Eureka has spoiled us, here’s hoping they continue that trend into 2019 and beyond.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA TRILOGY IS OUT NOW ON [LIMITED EDITION] EUREKA BLU-RAY