Once Upon a Time is about Wong Fei Hung (played by Jet Li), who is a skilled martial arts master who is concerned over the growing influence of westernised culture in his town. The British and US Military have made their presence known and are taking advantage of the locals in various ways.
At the same time, the Shaho gang are causing trouble around town demanding protection money from local businesses, and are also working with the westeners. By bringing the western authorities women for trafficking, they are offered protection.
Leung Foon (played by Yuen Biao) has come to town and wants to learn about opera and kung fu. He seeks out a master and arrives at Wong Fei Hung’s school (being mislead by one of his students) before running into trouble with the Shaho Gang, and training under Master Yim, a master of an Iron Vest style.
This all comes together as Wong Fei Hung tries to sort out the Shaho Gang and ends up getting his house burned down and gets into some trouble with the local police. Shortly after this the Shaho Gang teams up with Master Yim to learn his Kung Fu while the Westerners cause trouble and even start shooting innocent Chinese people at a local play.
The Shaho Gang end up kidnapping Fei Hung’s relative ‘Aunt 13’ (for human trafficking) which causes Wong Fei Hung to go after them. Meanwhile Leung Foon starts to question the moralty of Master Yim and his allegiance with the Shaho Gang.
There’s a lot going on!
There are a lot of parallel storylines in this movie – you’ve got the struggle between Fei Hung and the Shaho Gang, Master Yim’s arrival in town and Leung Foon’s antics. Then everything seems to cross over as the storyline gets more intense.
Amongst all that you have Aunt 13 wishing she could be with Fei Hung despite their family relation (which is not a blood relation). However Fei Hung starts to get frustrated with her constant push of the western culture, constantly taking photos with her camera (which never seems to actually work properly!).
The cultural conflict
With the US and British really pushing their position, the towns people are really not happy about the intrusion. Wong Fei Hung makes a good point in the film about The Westerners having their own territories on Chinese land, claiming that they may end up taking even more, eventually taking China from the Chinese.
Perhaps the biggest thing is the use of guns in the film. While Fe Hung’s Kung Fu abilities are extremely precise, he has most trouble when a westerner or even local Chinese pulls guns on him, this is most evident when the crowd is fired upon during a play, so Fei Hung attacks the shooters and gets himself into more trouble.
The Americans and British are pretty damn evil in this movie though, tricking Chinese men to come and work overseas to mine gold and gett rich. Once again, Fei Hung – the voice of reason, proclaims “If it’s so wonderful, why would they come here and share it with us?”.
As it turns out the Chinese workers are basically like slave labour. As one escapee describes, they aren’t given access to medicine and are thrown overboard if they’re sick and basically treated as less then human.
This movie has a very Black & White portrayal of cultural difference being a ‘good vs bad’ scenario.
The Martial Arts and Action
Jet Li’s martial arts is looking good as always, his abilities really are near their peak in this movie, as with the stunt work of Yuen Biao. However, I personally found the fight scenes pretty boring as it seems they simply weren’t put together in a way that makes them exciting.
Toward the end of the movie the fights go from realistic to a more supernatural ‘wire fu’ that I think was meant to symbolise the higher level of skill vs skill (having to pull more advanced weapons out of each fighter’s arsenol). But it just dated the movie somewhat.
Ultimately, the fights were technically good to watch, but I definitely didn’t feel the excitement – maybe just me, you may find it to your liking.
Would I recommend it?
I don’t plan on watching this movie again anytime soon. It is a classic in a sense, but you’ve really got to be into this type of film to enjoy it. The production values aren’t great, the soundtrack is pretty flat (even though I found the music catchy). If you’re a fan of Jet, check it out to see some of his earlier work. I personally, am very in the middle with this movie.
Find it on Blu-Ray
Region A (US & Canada)
Once Upon a Time in China on Blu-ray