Once Upon a Time in China

Dir. Tsui Hark, 1991
Just borrowed a lot of DVDs off Jon, as Mr. Monkeypants is going to Japan for a few months. This is one of them, and this is the first time I’ve actually seen this movie, though I’ve read about it several times. Jet Li made a name for himself as martial arts master/folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, the same character Jackie Chan plays in Drunken Master 1 and 2. Bad guys exist of two levels: the low-down dirty gang, and the Imperialist pig dogs from both Britain and the U.S. (all played, as usual, by strange looking white men with beards). The film concerns itself a little with this uneasy period in Chinese history, when the West was making its presence known, and conning Chinese to come to America to find gold. Kung-fu can’t beat the Western guns, but Wong does well by using an umbrella and other props. Mostly, though, there’s oodles and oodles of absolutely top-darts fightin’, all choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, not as much wire-work as I’d thought, and great camera work by Tsui Hark and whoever was cinematographer (the credits list six people). Culminates with a classic fight atop a set of bamboo ladders, ripped off most recently in that Musketeer flick.

Nice DVD, too. The film transfer is crisp, the print looks unworn, and the extras feature brief clips of classic footage featuring the earlier version of Wong Fei-Hung, played by Kwan Tak-Hing (who made something like 70 films as the character, still bustin’ heads way into his 70s). The fighting in these originals look slow and stagey, but the historical factor makes it enjoyable. The DVD also comes with a nice booklet outlining the history of the character and some general kung-fu/Wu-shu facts. I hear there’s a version that’s six minutes longer, and a DVD that has English audio commentary, but this one is fine.

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