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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

Film ***

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 Master films).

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 moves.

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 fan.

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.

Video ***

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 pleased.

Audio **

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.

Features ***1/2

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.

Summary:

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.