[box cover]

Once Upon a Time in China

A lot of people were blown away by The Matrix in 1999, and in particular the stunning fight sequences, but aficionados of Hong Kong cinema knew the Wachowski Brothers hadn't invented a new genre — they merely imported one. The "wire-fu" of The Matrix — currently a de rigeur element of most American action films (even the frothy Charlie's Angels) — comes from a long tradition of Hong Kong films, themselves a dramatic outgrowth of the Peking Opera. The most famous practitioner of wire-fu today is Yuen Woo Ping, and while he did not contribute to Tsui Hark's 1991 Once Upon a Time in China, his stamp is on the film — after all, the action sequences were choreographed by Yuen family members Yuen Chong-Yan and Yuen Shun-Yi, in addition to Lau Kar-Wing. Combine that with the directorial skills of Tsui Hark — sometimes described as the "Steven Spielberg of Hong Kong" for his pioneering use of special effects in the HK film industry — and it's little wonder why Once Upon a Time in China is generally considered one of the best films to ever come out of Hong Kong. Jet Li stars in Once Upon a Time in China as Wong Fei-Hong, a 19th century healer and martial arts teacher, and a famous Chinese folk hero (whose film appearances date back to 1949, although this was Li's first time in the role). With the continuing colonization of Asia by Britain, America, France, and other western countries, Wong is charged by the leader of the Black Flag Army with training the young men in town in the art of kung fu, in order to defend Chinese sovereignty. But it isn't just foreigners who are up to no good — a local Triad is leaning on the townsfolk for protection money, and there's Master "Iron Robe" Yim (Yan Yee Kwan), who wants to open his own martial arts school, but first wants to defeat Wong in order to establish his reputation. Meanwhile, the American-owned Sino-Pacific company is involved in both labor and prostitution rackets with the Chinese underground, giving Wong a trio of troublesome groups to bring under control.

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As is the case with many Asian films, there's a generous amount of silly slapstick humor in Once Upon a Time in China, especially in the early scenes as different characters are introduced, and it must be noted that the "humor" is not very sophisticated, nor does it fare well in translation (but then again, The Three Stooges probably doesn't work well overseas either). However, some of the foreign characters are funny, if in an unintended way, as the American antagonists are uniformly evil, replete with bad dialogue and mustache-twirling bravado. But even with the odd comic bits — and a more complex plot than the majority of HK action films — there's still plenty of set-pieces that show off both Hark's directorial skills and the hand-to-hand mastery of Jet Li, in particular a brawl in a restaurant where Li makes clever use of an umbrella, and another wild fight at a local theater. But the most memorable sequence comes towards the end, as Wong does battle with Master Yim. Set in the local Sino-Pacific shipping warehouse, several ladders reaching high storage lofts are used for various purposes, be it attack or retreat, and the massive set means there's plenty of room for wire-fu — it's a fight sequence that's easily as impressive as anything in The Matrix, both for its cleverness and its length. Columbia TriStar's DVD edition of Once Upon a Time in China features a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a source print that has its drawbacks, but may be the best available at this time. There is some flecking and minor collateral damage, although mostly in the early going, and the color has a muted quality, which means the blacks and other dark tones are never fully saturated. Audio is in the original mono (Dolby 2.0) in either Cantonese or Mandarin, and a dubbed track in English is also included (which is pretty much as silly sounding as all English dubs of Asian films). But despite these issues with the source materials, the English subtitle track is good, and the best feature on board makes the disc worth the price of admission — a commentary track with martial arts and Hong Kong film expert Ric Meyers, a casual, witty raconteur who is full of anecdotes about this picture, the movies of Jet Li and Tsui Hark, and the history of Asian films in general. Trailer gallery, cast notes. Keep-case.

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