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April 16, 2012

13

Photo Play: Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

by HELEN GEIB

This month on Photo Play: April showers bring… umbrellas.

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Last Week on Photo Play: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Coming Next: My Best Girl (1927)

Related Posts: Introduction to the “Once Upon a Time in China” trilogy

Read more from Helen Geib, Photo Play
13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Miriam
    Apr 17 2012

    This scene filled me with delight when I first saw it and made me a fan. OUATIC was one of the first Hong Kong movies I saw and, most happily, it was in a theater during a brief theatrical run. I expected dazzling choreography and physical skills but the wit and imagination of the fight scenes were a surprise. The umbrella is blurry because Jet Li is too fast for the camera, right?

  2. Apr 17 2012

    Exactly right. This scene exposed the limits of my screen capture software (it isn’t blurry on film). However, I had to include it in “umbrella month” anyway because I just love it so much.

    Wit and ingenuity are hallmarks of Tsui’s best work (the OUATIC series, “A Chinese Ghost Story” 1 and 2, “Peking Opera Blues”, “A Chinese Feast”). “Once Upon a Time in China” and Johnnie To’s “The Mission” are the movies that started my love affair with Hong Kong cinema a dozen years ago.

  3. Apr 17 2012

    I’m not a huge Tsui Hark fan and one film had managed to ruin it all: “Vampire Hunters” (aka the “Era of Vampires”, 2003). It’s one of the worst films that I have ever seen, in general. Also, I didn’t know that he directed so many Jet Li films, only 2 of which I’ve watched (OUATIC 1 and The Legend) but my favourite film of his, so far is “Seven Swords” (2005). Not because it’s a reimagining of Seven Samurai (1954) but because it’s a damn good martial arts films. It’s terrifically shot, relatively well acted, and exciting all the way through to the end. And the bad guy’s mean! I like that!

    And re Jet Li, I find that his best performance is either in “Hero” or “Unleashed”. “Hero” was the first film he starred in in which I’ve managed to refer to him as an actor because even though it’s wuxia, it’s a dramatic piece of gorgeous art and he was terrific in it. His most human role, though is in “Unleashed”. His performance there is underrated.

  4. Apr 17 2012

    Don’t dismiss Tsui because his films post-1995 are so bad (which they mostly are, with a few notable exceptions). He’s one of the major directors of the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s. He was also very influential as a producer and writer; he produced “A Chinese Ghost Story”, “A Better Tomorrow”, and “Dragon Inn” among others. In addition to the titles I listed in the earlier comment, “The Blade” and “Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain” (NOT to be confused with “The Legend of Zu”) are must-sees in his filmography.

    “Seven Swords” is great, but not really a re-imagining of “Seven Samurai”. It’s an adaptation of one of Liang Yusheng’s epic wuxia stories. Tsui also produced a very enjoyable TV series adaptation of the same novel the following year, as a sort of more expansive counterpart to the movie.

  5. Apr 17 2012

    @Helen, well, you’re the HK film expert. :O)

    I’ve watched “Zu Warriors” years back and it did suck but I didn’t know that there was an older one. And I love “A Better Tomorrow” (I only saw the first one). And even though it’s directed by John Woo, I’m guessing that Woo got his start in cinema because of Tsui Hark… no?

    I’ve heard of “The Blade”, I’ve heard of “Dragon Inn”, and I’ve heard of “A Chinese Ghost Story” (is that the one with the woman with the white hair?) but I haven’t watch any of them. And I just remembered that I’ve watched, also years back, “Time and Tide” and I really enjoyed it. :O)

    From the HK cinema I know Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao (my favourite of the three Kung Fu Stooges), Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Michele Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, Maggie Q, Zhang Ziyi, Cynthia Rothrock, Bolo Yeung, Bruce Lee, Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, Tony Leung, the fat guy with the high pitched voice from Infernal Affairs and Hitman, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To, Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar Wai, The Shaw Bros, and John Woo.

    Am I missing anyone? I’ve probably only found the tip of the iceberg.

  6. Apr 18 2012

    Tsui and Woo: Woo had a studio apprenticeship at Shaw and Golden Harvest. However, his career had stalled when Tsui put together the funding for “A Better Tomorrow”, which revitalized his career and is a defining film in the heroic bloodshed genre.

    “is that the one with the woman with the white hair?”- You’re thinking of “The Bride With White Hair”, also a wuxia classic but not one of Tsui’s films.

    “Time and Tide” is one of the notable exceptions in the post-1995 career. The story’s a mess (par for the course in Hong Kong- screenwriting consistently the weak link) but the action is fabulous. Recently “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” was another good one.

    “the fat guy with the high pitched voice from Infernal Affairs and Hitman”- Eric Tsang, made a career in comedy but in recent years has taken on more dramatic roles like in IA

    You’re missing some people. Hong Kong’s a big place. :-)

  7. Miriam
    Apr 18 2012

    I can never remember the title for Time and Tide, another rare theatrical release during the Hong Kong heyday. I just call it ‘the trillion bullets movie’.

    Leslie Cheung is someone I’m sure you know if you’ve seen Wong Kar-Wai’s movies and also stars in A Chinese Ghost Story, which is a delightful movie. Whichever Tony Leung you’re thinking of there’s another one, and they’re equally fine actors.

  8. Apr 18 2012

    I have three HK cult classics that contain Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and 4 other comedians including Eric Tsang. They are “Winners and Sinners”, “My Lucky Stars”, and “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars” (the last one wasn’t very good). They’re comedy centric and the cast is hilarious. But I’ll always love the Kung Fu Stooges (films like “Wheels on Meals” and “Dragons Forever”).

    @”The Bride with White Hair” sounds exactly like what I was describing. lol

    @”Time and Tide”, true, there is no coherent story. Just amazing action sequences which is where the film excels greatly.

    @”Detective Dee”, I didn’t know that it’s a Tsui Hark film. I’ve had it at home on Blu-ray for more than half a year and still didn’t get around to watching it…

    Oh! I forgot Gordon Liu! But I’ve only seen him in 2 films and you can pretty much guess what they are. :O)

  9. Apr 18 2012

    There’s more than one Tony Leung? That’s news…

    Well, I’m referring to the the one from “In the Mood for Love”, “2046”, “Infernal Affairs”, and “Hero”.

  10. Apr 18 2012

    In that case you mean Tony Leung Chiu-wai, not to be confused with Tony Leung Ka-fai. Since they’re of the same generation, age- and acting-wise, confusing them is easy to do. Hong Kong audiences responded by bestowing the nicknames “Little Tony” on the former and “Tall Tony” on the latter. Have you seen “Election”? Tall Tony is the triad boss who battles Simon Yam’s character for the top dog position.

    It’s dangerous to be listing all these great HK movies. I have to keep reminding myself that I have lots of unwatched DVDs by the player….

  11. Apr 19 2012

    I own “Election” and “Triad Election” (aka “Election 2”) and have watched each of them only once, and a few years ago, so I don’t remember anyone in that film except for Simon Yam (who I forgot to list earlier) and that fat guy with the mustache. They’re a part of Johnnie To’s crew. :O)

    From Johnny To I also own “Thrown Down”, an awesome film about Judo and it’s dedicated to Akira Kurosawa whose first film, “Sugata Sanshiro” is Judo based; “Breaking News”; “Exiled”; and “Mad Detective” (on Blu-ray). I had to order “Mad Detective” online because it’s from the Masters of Cinema Collection and only exists in Europe and Asia, but it’s region free. :O)

    I don’t own “The Mission” because its soundtrack is horrendous. I contemplated shutting off the film mi-way through the first time that I watched it solely because of the music. But the film was so good that I watched all of it to the end and didn’t regret one bit of it. I really need to watch it again one day…

    And I checked out pictures of Tony Leung Ka-fai and I don’t seem to recognize him at all. Strange…

  12. Natalia
    May 2 2012

    Yes I heard that too and I’m confused. Didn’t he aarledy remake Dragon Inn? So he’s doing a remake of a remake? I have never seen the original King Hu Dragon Inn, but I did see Tsui Hark’s New Dragon Gate Inn (with Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, and Donnie Yen) which I was under the impression was inspired by the King Hu film (but I may be wrong with this, as King Hu probably didn’t make a film with a nymphomaniac cannibal as one of his main characters). I am confused but not to worry I will definitely go and see Tsui’s new Dragon Inn when it comes out.

  13. May 2 2012

    @Natalia: “Dragon Inn” (1992) a/k/a “New Dragon Gate Inn” was produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Raymond Lee. It is a remake of King Hu’s 1967 “Dragon Gate Inn” a/k/a “Dragon Inn”. I don’t know how closely the remake follows the original because I’m waiting on a decent DVD release (waiting for years now…) but my understanding is the basic plot and the desert inn setting is the same.

    Tsui Hark’s latest film as director and producer is “The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”, which is a quasi-remake/re-imagining of the earlier films starring Jet Li. Needless to say I am VERY much looking forward to seeing it while at the same time rather desperately hoping that it’s not a repeat of “Zu Warriors” (2001) a/k/a “The Legend of Zu”, which was Tsui’s quasi-remake/re-imagining of his own “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain” (1983). In that instance the original film is quite good and the follow-up film is quite terrible.

    (multiple remakes/re-imaginings + alternate English titles = recipe for confusion)

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