Once Upon A Time in China (1991) / Action-Adventure
aka Wong Fei-hung
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence
Running Time: 99 min. (US), 134 min. (uncut)
Cast: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Yuen Biao, Steve Tartalia, Jacky Cheung
Director: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Leung Yiu Ming, Tang Pik-yin, Tsui Hark, Yun Kai-Chi
Review published December 20, 2000
Definitely not to be viewed for a peek at historical accuracy, but definitely worth watching for the unbelievable martial arts talents of its star, OUATIC is a classic Hong Kong action flick that is more entertaining than it is good.
In the 19th Century of the Canton area of China, Wong Fei-Hung (Li, Swordsman II) is the teacher of a martial arts school at a time when Western sensibilities are beginning to take over the area. The school becomes a focal point for many factions, including the British and American fleet, as well as rival gangs and kung fu masters that want to take over. Wong gets caught in the crossfire and must do everything he can to not only protect his people, but also the Chinese way of life from extinction.
A patriotic movie to be sure, but really it's more of an excuse for Li to kick some serious butt. There are major problems with the narrative, not the least of which are the anachronistic aspects of the costumes and sets at times (the priest's sneakers for instance). The political movements and motivations are convoluted, the acting lacking, and direction stagnant at times, but who cares about this when you have one of the greatest martial arts cinema actors of our times at the top of his abilities? If director Hark (Double Team, Knock Off) could have taken out the subplot involving the rival Chinese thugs, at least his film could have been compact and energetic, because there is a lot of drag for an action flick, especially in the middle third.
The fight scenes in OUATIC are terrific, but could have been much better if they weren't so claustrophobic. Poor cutting, sloppy editing, and strange selection of camera angles from the usually adept Hark downplay some of the great action. Still, there is a particularly memorable fight on some long ladders that is worth the price of admission (or rental) alone.
Once Upon a Time in China is a must for Jet Li fans, pretty good stuff for kung fu fans, and a headache for historical film buffs, but likeable nonetheless.
©2000 Vince Leo