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 setting. China has opened to foreigners, especially British and Americans, and Wong’s superior is leaving to fight the French in Vietnam. They also refer to Manchurians from the North as interlopers who are now dominating local politics in collusion with the foreigners.
The problem is Chineseness and how to balance tradition with change. This idea consumes all the characters, who include Westernized, English-speaking Chinese who have recently returned home as well as foreigners who speak fluent Cantonese. These cultural tensions define the fights, uproars, donnybrooks, ruckuses, and fracases over the course of more than two hours, for all action is explicitly defined by these pressures and dilemmas. The participants practically wear colored symbols on their shirts to symbolize the issues.
Don’t be shocked, but the Brits and Yanks don’t come off well. The only foreigner of integrity is a Jesuit missionary who gets killed, and he’s hardly a kindly avuncular presence. That said, the most serious antagonists are kind of non-local Chinese barging in. Iron Vest Yim (Yen Shi-kwan) is a fighting master who debases his values, and he’s presented as tragic and misguided. Outright evil is the flesh-trading protection racket led by Tong (Yau Kin-kwok), who gets his desserts when kidnapped women rescue themselves from his clutches with no-nonsense dispatch.
Two characters lend major support. Rosamund Kwan plays a kind of repressed romantic interest for Wong; she’s his unrelated “13th Aunt” who appears in all films except Part 4. She dresses in western clothing, which matches her impetuous and progressive nature while provoking hostility among reactionaries. Martial artist Yuen Biao (replaced by Max Mok in later chapters) plays Leung Foon, a Peking Opera buffoon who carries a torch for 13th Aunt.
Just to be clear, this film is about mayhem, even if serious issues of Chinese historical identity provide the fabric for all this warp and woof. The sociopolitical aspect is one reason the whole series resonated so strongly in Hong Kong cinema during the decade defined by jitters over Britain’s imminent handover of the country to mainland China. Tsui discusses this explicitly in a pertinent bonus interview.
If you have no patience or interest in martial arts, either as kinetic excitement or dance, then you may find this film dull. Even so, the big climactic fight between Wong and Yim on several acrobatic ladders should wake anyone up. Yes, it’s highly edited and features some fanciful wire-work as opposed to “real” moves, but its execution largely matches its conception for amazement and bewilderment.
The rest of the series is more of the same at a consistently high level. Jet Li is replaced by Vincent Zhao for Parts 4 and 5, while Part 4 is directed by its fight choreographer, Yuen Bun.
Part 2 (1992) opens in 1895 with virtually a musical number about a terrorist gang that wants to kill foreigners. The gang functions as the main antagonists because the heroes now perceive integration with foreign inventions and ideas as necessary progress.
The most dangerous foreign idea is democracy as championed by real-life figures Sun Yat-sen (Zhang Tielin) and Lu Haodong (David Chiang, hero of many Shaw Brothers films). In other words, the story condemns reactionaries and promotes revolutionaries. Donnie Yen plays the local commander, trying to preserve his power, who gets the climactic fight with Wong. They do leg-splits like nobody’s business. The story also uses the fact that Wong practiced acupuncture.
Russians are the baddies in Part 3 (1993), which introduces the magic of cinema as well as Wong’s factory-owning father (Lau Shun). War-mongering Germans are antagonists in Part 4 (1994) along with a glamorous all-female band of anti-foreign terrorists. This chapter emphasizes feminist issues and offers 14th Aunt (Jean Wang) running a newspaper. Both films focus on contests between the colorful paper lions and dragons familiar from parades. Perhaps that doesn’t sound very violent, but the contests wear their political symbolism brazenly.
Both aunts show up for Part 5 (1994), the last half of which is wall-to-wall pirate battles that mark the most surreal fights in the series. One curious quality of Parts 4 and 5 is the ambiguity of the endings, which deny the simple action-film pattern that problems can be solved with violence. These films end with China in tatters against itself, and Wong’s triumphs feel minimal and temporary.
A cursory glance at the box’s packaging and pamphlet can lead you to believe the set contains five films. In fact, it has six.
Jet Li returned for a tantalizing capstone, Once Upon a Time in China and America (Wong fei hung 6: Sai wik hung see, 1997), in which the characters travel to the Old West. Or rather, this must be the early 20th Century in some highly anachronistic impression of San Francisco that looks like the middle of nowhere, not a bustling modern port where our heroes would have landed without needing a stagecoach. We’re reminded that the previous films also played fast and loose with history.
Shot in Texas, produced by Tsui and directed by master action star-director Sammo Hung, this magisterial film opens with an old-fashioned stagecoach attack by brightly painted Indians. Wong finds himself living among them and helps them against a rival tribe while 13th Aunt’s party discovers racism and exploitation against Chinese immigrants, so it’s a learning experience for all. It’s also a forgetting experience, since Wong loses his memory among the Indians.
With the help of young gunslinger Billy (Jeff Wolfe), the racist mayor’s deadly activities are exposed in a big fight with a wolf-howling hombre (Joe Sayah) who looks like Johnny Depp. At the end, Sheriff Billy says, “This part of Fort Stockton will be called Chinatown,” our best indicator that this is allegedly San Francisco, where a Stockton Street does mark Chinatown. No happy solutions are offered for the unnamed Native American tribes whom Wong literally forgets after recovering his Chinese memory. Perhaps a political commentary is implied there.
While I’m sure this is nobody’s idea of a historically sensitive revisionist western, and it has much of the spoofery that marks the previous films, the story manages to convey that the Old West wasn’t such a hospitable melting pot and that Chinese immigrants (a minor element in Part 1) weren’t heading for the Golden Land they’d been promised. Unlike some of the previous films, this chapter implies that if your “kung fu” (self-defense) is strong, you can find justice.
This film has been poorly served on disc, so it’s important to have restored widescreen image and sound. Especially important is Lo Kwun Ting’s score, a majestic combination of western and eastern motifs that reinvents Wong’s theme music.
Released in the year of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland, this episode offers an ambiguous promise at best of Western siren calls, no matter how much unpleasantness must be defeated first. These feelings may derive from Hong Kong’s sense of having been let down by its colonizers, Great Britain (and the West beyond it), for delivering them to a “home” many didn’t welcome and which seemed like a less desirable colonizer. Many Hong Kong cinema figures seriously considered relocating to Hollywood.
One fascinating aspect of Hong Kong cinema, even in its most trivial postwar melodramas and comedies, is a fierce sense of rejecting unworthy parental figures while navigating tensions between tradition and the future, which is usually equated with Western influence. You can see this dynamic, for example, in the iconic musicals and dramas of Grace Chang, such as Mambo Girl (Yi Wen, 1957). Now there’s a star who needs a Criterion box.
Anyway, this final film in Tsui’s Wong Fei-Hung series is among the last Hong Kong productions to enact or imply this national subtext prior to the repatriation that occurred on 1 July 1997. Once again, the tensions of history make these period fight films deeper and more ambiguous than the average martial arts epic.
The first three films are scanned from 4K digital restorations, the last three films from 2K. All are in their widescreen glory. None offer the dubbed English tracks that have sometimes been available, nor do they offer Mandarin options except for the final film. These soundtracks sometimes throw in Mandarin for certain speakers and other languages for various foreigners, but these are basically Cantonese tracks as heard in Hong Kong.
Among numerous extras, one of the most fascinating is a 1976 documentary, on which Tsui did uncredited work, about political strife in New York’s Chinatown related to a death caused by police. Also rewarding is an interview with Tsui’s then-wife and business partner, Nansun Shi, in which she discusses their company’s tremendous impact on the industry.