ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Jet Li,
Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan
Director: Tsui Hark
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Four Trailers, Audio Commentary, Talent Files, English Dubbed Version
Length: 134 Minutes
Release Date: January 9, 2001
Kudos to Columbia Tri Star for making one of the most
significant, yet hard-to-find Hong Kong martial arts epics available to DVD
fans: Once Upon a Time in China.
As a fan of Asian films, I had read about this early Tsui Hark
directed Jet Li vehicle many times, but had never been able to find a copy on
video. This disc presents the full
uncut 134 minute subtitled version in widescreen, which are all definite treats
for purist fans.
Made in 1991, this picture represents a return (of sorts)
to the action screen of real life martial arts champion Jet Li, who had made a
couple of films in the mid 80’s, but had sort of lowered his profile for a
number of years in between. Here,
he gets to play the most legendary of Hong Kong folk heroes, Wong Fei-Hung…a
real life Chinese hero whose exploits have become so much the stuff of legend,
that in the present day there’s no real way to separate the fact from the
fiction anymore. So popular was he
as a cinema attraction, however, that Once Upon a Time in China actually
marked the 99th time Wong Fei-Hung was used as a character in a Hong
Kong film (most notably, Jackie Chan played him twice in both of his Drunken
The story takes place in the 19th century, when
China was playing host to both English and American influences and a strange
picture was being painted for their citizens by these foreigners:
lands where the streets were paved with gold and so on.
Most of it was a gimmick to swindle travelers out of their money and then
force them into near slavery in the West.
Wong Fei-Hung (Li) was a respected teacher of martial arts
and medicine man. He tried to live
a peaceful life, but found both his and his fellow countrymen’s existence
threatened by both the corruption of the Western invaders and the triad gangs,
who flourished under the so called Western laws, squeezing the life blood out of
the simple, everyday businesses.
Falsely accused of treason, Wong soon finds himself without
a school or a business, and forced to take matters into his own hands,
particularly when he learns his aunt (Kwan) is taken prisoner in a joint effort
by the triads and the Westerners to sell Chinese women as prostitutes.
I’m probably dwelling on the details of the plot too
much…this is, first and foremost, a martial arts film, and if you want action,
this one is packed with it! Apart
from a somewhat slow initial set-up (with some strangely broad attempts at
comedy), there are very few lulls here. Jet
Li is an amazing fighter, and boasted by some subtle wire work, he performs some
jaw dropping feats. In some of his
fights, he manages to use bamboo ladders in incredible and creative ways.
His fists and feet fly fast and furious, and the climactic battle
sequence ranks amongst the best martial arts fight sequences I’ve seen.
Accompanying him on screen is Yuen Biao, who was the littlest brother to
Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan at their Peking Opera school.
Biao has always been noted as one of Hong Kong’s greatest acrobats, and
he shows his prowess here with his tumbling, flying, and tautly controlled
The Vietnamese born director Tsui Hark has often been
called the Steven Speilberg of Hong Kong for his attention to detail the
cinematic sense he brought to martial arts movies.
I’ve seen many of his works, and this picture ranks as a prime example
of his style. He doesn’t detract
from the action, but his work is about more than just blocking fight scenes or
coordinating stunt work. His
camerawork is smooth and graceful, his editing potent and rhythmic, and his
overall sense of framing and visual composition make movies like Once Upon a
Time in China as much a treat for the serious film lover as for the action
Jet Li would, of course, go on to become one of Hong
Kong’s biggest stars (bolstered by two sequels to this film), and eventually
find some success in the west with his work in Lethal Weapon 4 and Romeo
Must Die. Tsui Hark would not
find American moviemaking as kind to him, as his foray into the Hollywood system
included only the Jean Claude Van Damme pictures Knock Off and Double
Team, but he continues to be one of Hong Kong’s most sought after and
hardest working filmmakers. And Once
Upon a Time in China serves as terrific testament to both men’s talents,
and remains a shining jewel in the action crown of Hong Kong cinema.
Film preservation in Asia is sadly lacking, so even when a
visually rich picture like this one comes along, aging effects tend to be
noticeable. Which is not to say
this is a bad looking disc…Columbia Tri Star did a terrific job with their
anamorphic transfer, making the presentation as clean and sharp as possible.
The only flaws are from the source material, which is just a tad faded
looking and marked by occasional dirt, scratches and debris.
The colors still play out fairly well, with good containment and
definition…it’s just that the images have lost some of their original
brightness over the last ten years. But
the absence of grain or noticeable compression artifacts make this transfer a
bit better than what you might see on some DVD imports from Hong Kong, and
overall, I think fans who know what they’re looking at are going to be
The simple mono track is serviceable, but not outstanding,
particularly since Hong Kong films prior to Sammo Hung’s film Mr. Nice Guy (with
Jackie Chan) had all audio post-dubbed rather than recorded live.
And they tend to sound exactly that way, too, which is why the style of
Asian cinema often gets ridiculed in spoofs.
The dynamic range is still fairly impressive, between the strong musical
score and action special effects…no complaints, but nothing to get overly
excited about, either.
Two of the features on this disc are exceptionally
cool…one is the inclusion of the English language dubbed version of the film
(NOT the same as the main program with a different soundtrack).
As someone who loves Asian cinema and is often disheartened over the way
the films tend to be cut down for Western release, this bonus version proves an
excellent comparative teaching tool. You
don’t have to watch more than five minutes of the English version to begin to
see how badly it was butchered! This
version doesn’t look quite as good as the main program, but credit
CTS…it’s still presented in anamorphic widescreen.
The other main extra is a terrific commentary by Hong Kong film expert
Ric Meyers, who writes and publishes a couple of magazines on the subject. His knowledge is strong, and his relaxed speaking style make
for both a highly informative and pleasant listen.
Also included on the disc are talent files and four trailers, for this
movie, Who Am I?, Gen X Cops and Gorgeous.
Once Upon a Time in China is a terrific martial arts film that is finally making a quality video appearance, thanks to DVD and Columbia Tri Star. Complete and uncut, in anamorphic widescreen, and with the original Chinese soundtracks, this is definitely a disc no Asian film lover should pass up.