Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

My new friend J.P. and I share a love for Hong Kong movies. We are celebrating it with a special double-post, Siskel/Ebert kind of review for one film. Make sure you head over to his site when you’re done here to read his thoughts on the film. Now back to your regularly scheduled reviews.


Once Upon a Time in China [黃飛鴻] (1991)
AKA Wong Fei-Hung, Kungfu Master

Starring Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan, Jacky Cheung, Kent Cheng, Yee Kwan Yan

Directed by Tsui Hark

Expectations: High. I love this movie.


Bravery soaring! Magnanimity overflowing!

It has been at least eight years since I’ve seen this. Back when I was watching nothing but Hong Kong movies with my friends, this was one of our top films. Going into watching this again, I had incredibly high expectations. There was no way it could live up to those kind of hopes, and in some ways it doesn’t, but overall I still really love this film. My tastes have changed over the years and it struck me how old the film felt. It didn’t feel like 1991, it felt more like 1971. That was when it hit me. This movie has more in common at a base level with a traditional Shaw Brothers kung fu flick than I had ever noticed before. The fight choreography and wire work are completely modern, but it has the feeling and the charm of a classic from the Run Run Shaw studio. In this way, Once Upon a Time in China is a look back, while taking a step forward.

The fights are spectacular. They’re what you are here for, and if not, they should be. The umbrella fight early on is quite good, but nothing can prepare you for the final battle in the warehouse involving multiple ladders. Even with the wire-work, the sheer level of acrobatic and physical ability on display is amazing. I remembered this fight a lot better than I remembered the rest of the film because my friends and I used to re-watch this fight over and over back in the day. It’s truly fantastic. I was a little disappointed that Yuen Biao didn’t get more to do in the way of fighting, but as his character was a guy that wanted to learn kung fu, I suppose I can forgive this.

I remember always being kind of bored during the non-fight portions of the film and to some degree I still was. I think I understood the story more than I ever had before, but realistically this movie is not about the plot so much as it is a vehicle for Jet Li to kick-ass as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung and emerge as the new movie star in town. What interested me this time around was the predominant theme of East vs. West that runs throughout. A number of characters state that “Fists (or kung fu) cannot defeat guns” during the course of the film and this inevitable westernization of China troubles Wong Fei-Hung. How can someone such as himself, so rooted in the old ways, find a place in the new China?

After defeating the remarkable Master Yim (Yee Kwan Yan) and retreating outside, Yim follows Wong Fei-Hung only to be gunned down by American soldiers trying to kill Wong Fei-Hung. In this moment, the reality of kung fu vs. guns hits Wong Fei-Hung and the viewer like a shadowless kick to the face. There is no dignity in a bullet, there is no honor in victory from afar. Masters Wong and Yim share this knowledge silently as Yim passes on. I could feel the terror in Fei-Hung’s heart as no amount of training can overcome a weapon as deadly as a bullet. A couple of minutes later, Fei-Hung takes this moment to heart and in a final slap in the face to Westernization, he flicks a bullet through the lead American’s head. How badass do you have to be to flick a bullet? Pretty badass. Of course these themes can also be interpreted as Chinese propaganda against America, but where’s the fun in that?

Highly recommended to kung fu junkies.

Now head over to J.P.’s I’m Outta Here Movie Thoughts and check out his companion review!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CmdeG4De7Y

7 comments to Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

  • I just left a comment on your friend’s blog. I really love this movie and I agree – it does have all the charm of one of the classic Shaw Brothers. I am writing some blogs right now on OUTIC, so you must come and have a read…
    I am looking forward to reading some more of your movie blogs.

  • Loved the review, Silver. It’s been many years since I last watched them, probably when I was an older teenager. It’ll be interesting to see if I have a similar experience as you did watching them again. I’ll be posting my own up probably in the next month or two in my continuing quest to review every martial art film ever made. Thank goodness for Netflix, and a wife willing to let me keep a bookcase full of martial arts films!

    Kiai-Kick

    • Thanks, glad you liked the review. Good luck reviewing all those martial arts films, there’s a ton! That’s a pretty fun pursuit though.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if you still enjoyed this one. The fights are so well done, there’s nothing to do but sit back and be in awe. I’ll look forward to your own review. I’m still meaning to re-watch the 2nd and post a review but I haven’t gotten to it yet. Thanks for coming by and commenting!

  • I am hoping that I will get the chance to rewatch the 2nd in the coming weeks and write some blogs on that as well. Looking forward to hearing your views on this movie.

Leave a Reply! Comments are always much appreciated!