Once Upon a Time in China Films Echoed Hong Kong Citizens’ Fears

Recently added to the Criterion Collection’s roster is Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei-hung in Cantonese), a series of Hong Kong martial arts epics that marked an international breakthrough for star Jet Li and a career highlight for producer-director Tsui Hark. The films are period adventures centering on Wong Fei-hung (1847-1925), a real Cantonese doctor and martial artist. In the 20th Century, he became a heavily fictionalized folk hero in films. Actors such as Gordon Liu and Jackie Chan played him in wildly diverse ways. The prize for productivity goes to the cycle of 81 films starring Kwan Tak-hing, produced from 1949 to 1970, and that’s the record for an actor playing a character in films.

There’s nothing like this phenomenon in Hollywood cinema. Imagine if Teddy Roosevelt or Florence Nightingale were characters in endless films about kicking butt. The interweb offers conflicting facts about these films, of course, but my source is the excellent Blu-ray pamphlet by film critic Maggie Lee and novelist Grady Hendrix, who give such solid background that I simply direct you to it for more information. There’s also a bonus documentary about Wong on Disc 2.

Tsui (his surname) gained fame as a writer-director-producer during Hong Kong’s flourishing commercial era from the 1970s to the ’90s. When he chose to apply that name to a multi-film epic on his own vision of Wong Fei-hung, it was an act of audacity and perhaps an inevitability.

The clincher was casting celebrated Wushu champion Jet Li, who retired from competition in his late teens. Li’s first film was the important Shaolin Temple (Shàolínsì, 1982, directed by Chang Hsin Yen), which became a trilogy. However, his films for Tsui as Wong Fei-hung became easily his most well-known in the West before Hollywood called for Lethal Weapon 4 (Richard Donner, 1998).

Tsui employs a kinetic, high-energy style without usually being frantic. He loves editing, but he also loves to swoop from a high angle to street level and dolly in gracefully. The editing of shots wouldn’t be meaningful if he didn’t understand what Sergei Eisenstein understood: the shot should be worth seeing. Therefore, Tsui’s compositions are gracefully constructed, now lit with mist and smoke, now in motion, now oddly angled, now with wide-angle distortions, often in slow-motion because this too is “action”. He attends both poetry and rhythm.

The series’ English titles, which simply add successive numbers to Once Upon a Time in China, are obviously calculated to remind us of Sergio Leone‘s similarly titled films. We should bear in mind two things. First, the Chinese titles are simply the hero’s name with successive numbers, so no such resonance is intended by Tsui. Second, Leone’s inspiration was Akira Kurosawa, and Tsui is tapping that source directly as well as absorbing Chinese artists like Chang Cheh and King Hu.

The debut, Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei-Hung, 1991), right away introduces the historical and social problem that defines all the characters and their complex relations in this late 19th Century…

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