In 1972, Jet Li was a young lad, performing in a wushuu (acrobatics) troupe for then-President Richard Milhouse Nixon as some of the political barriers surrounding China began to dissolve. It was a proud moment for the Nixon administration, as they negotiated new avenues of trade between Communist China and the United States. Years later, Jet Li went on to do something really important: star in Hong Kong action flicks.
In Once Upon a Time in China, Jet Li gets the opportunity to show off his blistering martial-arts skills as he plays the legendary Wong Fei-Hong, who fought for China's rights against the Western colonial powers moving into China in the late 19th century. Although Wong was nominally a healer, he organized the local populace into a peace-keeping force that worked in tandem with the then-ruling Manchu invaders. If you're confused now, you might want to keep reading before you watch the film.
As the film starts, Wong runs a healing clinic in the town of Fa Shan (although other sources have called it Canton -- perhaps there are translation issues here). He is charged by the general of the Black Flag army to safeguard the town by training the local men in the art of kung fu. One might think that a healer would turn down the job, but Wong realizes that the Western forces are encroaching on the land of China and its people, and so he accepts the challenge to help in any way he can. With the Black Flag army pulling out of the area, it's also the only sensible thing to do.
Wong is joined by an eclectic cast of supporting characters. Buckteeth Sol (Jacky Cheung) is Chinese, but has lived much of his life in the U.S., and so his English is much better than his Chinese. "Porky" Lang (Kent Cheng) is a disciple of Wong's and also the local pork dealer. Wong's more faithful disciple, Lee, helps out at the clinic, and Wong's "Aunt" Yee (Rosamund Kwan) has just returned from a 2-year stay in "the West" to renew her relationship with Wong. The two aren't really related, but they grew up together. Love blooms.
Enter Fu (Yuen Biao), a young man in the employ of a traveling theater. He desperately wants to study under Master Wong, but a series of "mistaken identity" mishaps prevent this. Fu provides much of the comic relief for this film, as he gets mistaken for the bad guy more than once.
There are LOTS of bad guys in Once Upon a Time In China (hereafter OUATIC). First off, there's the Sha Ho gang, a group of ruffians from the next town who are extorting protection money from the citizens of Fa Shan. Wong spends the first half of the movie trying to find a way to bring them to justice, although his attempts are stymied by the reluctance of the townspeople to act as witnesses.
Then there are the Americans, Jackson, and his henchman, "Tiger." Jackson represents the Sino-Pacific company, which is in the business of bilking Chinamen out of their savings and shipping them to the U.S. to serve as cheap labor. The Sha Ho gang offers to supplement their operation by providing women to serve as prostitutes for the laborers. The British and the French get thrown in as background villains for good measure (and also because, historically, they were there).
Last but not least, there is "Iron Robe" Yim. Master Yim wants to be the top martial artist in Fa Shan. Before he can open his own school, however, he thinks he needs to make a name for himself by defeating the current master. That just happens to be Master Wong.
And just to make sure that all our villains show up in the same place at the same time, the Sha Ho gang throws their capital in behind Master Yim once his ambition to defeat Master Wong is revealed. They offer to help him start his school if he'll lead their gang. They all move in to the American fort and start kidnapping women to send to the States.
Because he thinks himself unworthy to study under Wong, Fu offers his services to Master Yim. Fu originally thinks Yim to be an honorable man, but once Yim joins the Sha Ho gang, Fu has little choice but to follow his master.
We realize that the above synopsis is starting to look like Terms of Endearment. Don't worry: this film has plenty of what Terms of Endearment lacked -- over-the-top martial-arts fighting! Bones are broken, bodies fly through the air with the greatest of ease, wood shatters, and just about anything on the screen can be used as a weapon. All this, and a plot too!
The fights in this movie are really top rate. Of particular note is the final blowout between Wong and Yim, which takes place in the American fort's storage loft. Wong and Yim bounce of the walls, fight atop teetering ladders, throw things at each other, and exchange dirty looks. At one point, Wong kicks Yim in the face six times in one jump. That's just the kind of movie this is. Somewhat more cartoonish than a Jackie Chan film, but a little more realistic than some others, such as the gloriously loopy Wing Chun.
If your previous exposure to kung-fu films has been the local syndicated channel's Kung-Fu Gold Theater equivalent, then you might expect poor acting and poorer cinematography. Not so. The actors in this film, while somewhat difficult to distinguish at first, are all top-notch and a pleasure to watch. The tension between Wong and Yee is obvious, even though few words are actually spoken about the nature of their relationship and where it might go. We should also mention that Jet Li has more talent in his feet than most people have in their entire bodies. Not only is he a competent actor, but his athletic ability is stunning.
The character acting should not go unnoticed, either. Sol's attempts to return to his Chinese roots and his eventual acceptance of his hybrid nature are a poignant sub-plot. Porky's desire (and continual failure) to please his master provide some comic relief, and the initial leader (pre-Master Yim) of the Sha Ho gang is just evil enough to make you cheerful when he meets his demise.
OUATIC's director, Tsui Hark, brings style and symbolism to Wong's life. Watch the shadow play between Yee and Wong as she measures him for a Western suit, or Fu's mysterious initial encounter with Yim in the rain, and you'll see what we mean. The story is beautifully photographed, and there are powerful moments that you shouldn't miss. Hark also knows when to make us laugh, and although most of the jokes are somewhat primitive (stuttering, pratfalls), there are some moments of graceful, subtle humor as well.
One of the things we like best about OUATIC is the historical perspective it offers. Although most people tend to think of "kung fu masters" as noble, indestructible practitioners of an ancient art, this film graphically demonstrates that many of them were neither noble nor indestructible. "We cannot fight against guns with kung fu," gasps Yim at the end of the movie. Wong nods. China is changing, and there is an unsettling realization that the balance of power is changing, too.
OUATIC was popular enough to spawn many imitators and five sequels (yes, five sequels), most of which were directed by Hark and starred Jet Li. The films were apparently good enough to gain Hark some attention state side. Coming to a theater near you is Double Team, starring Jean Claude VanDamme, Dennis Rodman, and Mickey Rourke, directed by none other than Tsui Hark!
Thusly, Tsui Hark joins the ever growing legion of fine Hong Kong directors who have gone on to direct mediocre films starring Jean Claude Van Damme. The debate rages as to whether this is a good thing. Some fans of Hong Kong cinema argue that Van Damme helps HK directors get their start in the U.S., while others maintain that this damns them (pun intended) to direct low-budget action films for their entire career, when they are capable of more.
Our opinion? It's too soon to say. Hopefully, the Van Damme films are a way for these talented directors to get their feet in Hollywood's door, and people like Hark will be able to move on to higher-budget and more meaningful projects. We hope that Double Team will be Hark's way of paying his dues in Hollywood, rather than establishing a trend. As Once Upon a Time in China shows, he deserves better than an action buddy-movie with a bad accent and green hair.