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June 2, 2009

On DVD/Blu-ray – The Once Upon A Time In China Trilogy


Wong Fei-hung holds the dubious distinction of appearing as a character in more movies than any other historical figure. Wong (1847-1924) was a Kung Fu master and doctor of traditional Chinese medicine in Guangdong Province (or Canton). His martial arts prowess, revolutionary fervor, and compassion for the poor made him a Chinese folk hero. Fictional Wongs have featured in more than 120 movies celebrating the real man’s accomplishments and exploits- and inventing many new ones.

Most of those 120 movies are part of a post-war, two decades-plus, nearly 100 entries-long Hong Kong series starring Kwan Tak-hing. Subsequent decades have brought movie series of more typical length, standalone films, and TV series. In the common way of the Hong Kong film industry, the depictions cover the dramatic and comedic gamut.

Two notable Wong films to achieve international as well as domestic popularity paired him with his father Wong Kei-ying, in real life also a renowned martial artist. Iron Monkey (1993) imagined Wong as a boy (convincingly played by female martial arts athlete Tsang Sze-man); Donnie Yen took the part of Wong Kei-ying. Jackie Chan played a grown but youthful Wong in one of his best films, Drunken Master II (1994) co-starring Ti Lung in the father’s part.

But the greatest of Wong Fei-hung’s cinematic adventures is producer-director-writer Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon A Time in China” trilogy starring Jet Li. Once Upon a Time in China (original Hong Kong title Wong Fei Hung) was released in 1991, followed closely by the first sequel in 1992 and Once Upon a Time in China III in 1993. The trilogy was a box office smash that catapulted Li to superstardom. It also inspired a flood of imitators, the renewed vitality of the historical martial arts genre in the early 1990s cementing Tsui’s reputation as an industry trend-setter.

The original film hews the closest of the three to the historical record. It is set in Wong’s home city of Foshan with the action concentrated around his martial arts school and medical clinic, Po Chi Lam. Like the real man, the film’s Wong is a respected community leader, dedicated healer, and martial arts master famous for the breadth of his skills and his mastery of the “shadowless kick” technique. The sequels take the heroes on the road: in II, to a medical convention where they meet China’s revered revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen and in III, to visit Wong Kei-ying.

Playing the trilogy’s only significant female character, Rosamund Kwan holds her own as Wong’s romantic interest “Aunt 13” (so-called as a respectful form of address to a relative by marriage). The love story gives continuity to the series, building naturally to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Second-billed Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung, and Kent Cheng have large supporting roles in the first film as Wong’s disciples, two of them in the martial arts and one in medicine. Yuen’s seriocomic character Leung Foon would return in the sequels as pure comic relief and played by Max Mok, a casting change that reflects the character’s downgraded narrative importance.

The first and second films, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, are renowned for their many and consistently excellent martial arts action sequences. The courtyard in the rain fight and the ladder fight in Once Upon a Time in China, performed by Jet Li and Yee Kwan-yan, are among the genre’s very best, as is the climactic pole fight in Once Upon a Time in China II performed by Li and Donnie Yen. This post is a stills gallery from a personal favorite, the first film’s teahouse umbrella fight.

Wong Fei-hung the man’s turbulent times and solid revolutionary credentials readily lend themselves to politically charged storytelling, as well as to drawing contemporary political and social parallels. The trilogy is unusually politicized for a Hong Kong film, advocating a broadly non-partisan, anti-authoritarian, and anti-imperialist Chinese nationalism. Tsui’s nationalism is grounded in appreciation for uniquely Chinese ideals and traditions, but at the same time explicitly rejects stagnation, insularity, and a reflexive hostility to foreign ideas. The tensions generated by looking back and looking forward, turning in to China and out to the West drive the films’ broad-canvas stories. However, Wong Fei-hung the character is the ultimate battleground; the final triumph his personal reconciliation of tradition and modernity.

The Hong Kong film industry in the 1990s was never slow to capitalize on a money-maker and many box office winners have sequels in name only. The “Once Upon a Time in China” trilogy has three. Vincent Zhao fills in as Wong Fei-hung in IV and V, while Li returned in VI (a/k/a Once Upon a Time in China and America), a genre parody directed by Sammo Hung that follows the slapstick adventures of a temporarily amnesiac Wong in the American Wild West. Given that IV-VI are also Wong Fei-hung movies and there is some degree of continuity in front of and behind the camera, they bear more relation to the series progenitor than many Hong Kong sequels do to theirs. Nevertheless, the story begun in Once Upon a Time in China is completed with the trilogy.

Like just about all Hong Kong films not directed by Wong Kar-wai, the Once Upon a Time in China trilogy has yet to receive the DVD/Blu-ray release it deserves. However, the DVD is uncut, widescreen, and has reasonably good English subtitles, which makes it better than most. Special features are some trailers and a commentary track by Ric Meyers on the first film.

New releases this week: Defiance, He’s Just Not That Into You, Revolutionary Road