My new partner in crime at http://silveremulsion.wordpress.com and I have decided to collaborate on some of the finest Asian movies we’ve seen and give you, the reader, our thoughts on these films so you can make an informed decision on whether to view them or not. Also, if you have seen any of the movies we decide to collaborate on we would love to hear your comments on the matter. Again, this is one in a series we are going to do together so stay tuned for some great Asian movie reviews from two movie connoisseurs.
China has had a very tumultuous history, including hundreds of years of civil war, a humiliating defeat in the opium war and a bloody occupation by Japan. It was during the dark times between the opium war and the Japanese occupation that a Chinese folk hero, physician and martial arts expert was to emerge — Wong Fei-hung (1847-1924). Wong Fei-hung, a legendary figure, would, among other things, later inspire his countrymen to endure even bigger ordeals in the last century. The legend of Wong Fei-hung has also inspired dozens of films. In my opinion the best is Once Upon a Time In China, a 1991 Hong Kong kung-fu epic directed by Tsui Hark. This film had five sequels and was among the first to introduce Jet Li as its main star to Western audiences. Li as Wong Fei-hung provides the viewer with a fine performance especially given that role was played very early in his career.
The plot: On the surface the movie seems simple enough, as my colleague said, almost Shaw Brothers simple, but in reality the story is very complex and transcends the many martial arts films whose plots can easily be summed up in a single sentence. Wong Fei-Hung, like his countrymen, is forced to endure the humiliation of American slavers, local gangs, a renegade martial arts master and even his own wayward (but well-intentioned) students. As if these problems were not enough, he has to contend with his growing affection for Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) which is important as to movie is set around the end of the 19th century when there were great social changes in China. This is typified with his relationship with his “Aunt” Yee (who is not related to him by blood), as she would be taboo to marry. The fact that this is a series of films allows the relationship to develop slowly also setting it apart from many Hong Kong films where romances are very fast-moving and unrealistic.
The action sequences are superb, which is unsurprising considering that they are choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, though dim-witted critics who can find fault in anything point to the wire-work and use of doubles. The final showdown is a stunning success of editing as Jet Li was injured and had to be doubled for many of the shots that weren’t above the waist, but his extraordinary fist techniques make up for this. The film has a long running time for a martial arts movies so for once there is plenty of time for story and action.
Hong Kong movies don’t come much better than this. Anyone who is a fan of wire-work and/or the likes of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon should hold this movie in high esteem—either that or they are a communist. I could not agree more with my new partner in crime at Silver Emulsion. You must check out his take on Once Upon a Time In China at http://silveremulsion.wordpress.com — you would be a fool not to.