ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Once Upon a Time in China Trilogy Blu Ray (Eureka!)
Eureka Entertainment’s boxed set brings together not only the first three entries in the Once Upon a Time in China series (all of which were directed by Tsui Hark) but, despite the monicker “trilogy”, includes the sixth as well (which was directed by Sammo Hung and Lau Kar-wing). They are a series of period martial arts adventures which portray the life and times of the legendary Chinese physician, martial artist and folk hero Wong Fei-hung (played by Jet Li). Parts IV and V, which feature Wenzhuo Zhao in lieu of Li, are not included here.
Watch a video:
Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
This first entry is set in Foshan, China during the late-19th century. Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) is in charge of the town’s local militia. They have their hands full dealing with the criminal Shaho Gang - who are involved in local protection and human trafficking rackets - as well as the encroaching British and American armies. By a misfortune of timing, Wong’s “13th Aunt” Yee (Rosamund Kwan) arrives back in the ensuing fracas following a lengthy stay in America.
Once Upon a Time in China was a huge hit in its home territory of Hong Kong. It combines lavish period production values with a long succession of spectacular martial arts sequences. The latter are often breathlessly exciting, with highlights including elaborate fights in a street market and an open-air opera stage. However, the best is saved until last; a warehouse showdown between Jet Li and Yen Shi-Kwan involving the two actors swinging around the place while balancing precariously on ladders.
The film also takes a thoughtful look at the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western culture during the period. In the opening sequence, a traditional Lion Dance capped with fireworks is interrupted by rifle shots from an American naval ship after one of its occupants misconstrues the banging noise as gunfire. However, while this occupying force are clearly clueless about the cultural norms of this mysterious land which they have visited, they are also undeniably militarily more advanced. At the heart of the story is a dichotomy between the proud desire to hold onto tradition and the inevitable necessity of having to progress to avoid being left behind.
At the same time, Once Upon a Time in China isn’t entirely without its flaws. As with much of Hong Kong cinema, the tonal shifts may seem odd and jarring to the average viewer from the West. There’s a good deal of slapstick-style comedy here (mainly provided by Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung and Kent Cheng) but, in other scenes, there are some decidedly brutal bits of violence - including Sam Peckinpah/John Woo-style slow-motion blood-splattered shootings and an attempted rape. The plot is also rather convoluted and difficult to follow as it focuses on a few too many characters for its own good. While the budget for sets and extras is clearly lavish, a number of shots feature some very obvious model ships. Nonetheless, you’ll be so awestruck by everything else here that the shortcomings don’t really matter.
Runtime: 134 mins
Dir: Tsui Hark
Script: Tsui Hark, Yuen Kai-chi, Leung Yiu-ming, Elsa Tang
Starring: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan, Jacky Cheung, Kent Cheng, Yen Shi-Kwan
Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)
In this sequel, Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) travels to the city of Guangzhou with his 13th Aunt Yee Siu-kwan (Rosamund Kwan) and his apprentice Leung Foon (who was played by Yuen Biao in the original but has been replaced by Siu Chung Mok here) in tow. When they arrive, they discover that the Western interests in the region are threatened by a fanatical, nationalist sect known as the White Lotus Cult. When they attack an English-language university where Wong teaches acupuncture and subsequently endanger a group of school children, they can’t help but get involved in the conflict.
In many ways, Once Upon a Time in China II develops and builds on the original. It brings the East vs. West clash which was present in the background of its predecessor into a more intense focus with a somewhat darker overall tone. Its depiction of a group of ultranationalists brutally destroying everything that isn’t part of traditional Chinese culture is particularly chilling when seen in the times of Brexit and the rise of the far right in Europe and America. The relentlessly frantic pacing and cluttered storyline have also been moderated to include more character development and a few distinctively arty inflections - a scene where Wong teaches Yee some martial arts moves is filmed in silhouette to look like a romantic dance, literally casting their relationship in a different light.
On the other hand, there isn’t quite the same sense of unbridled, flamboyant escapism here as there was in the first film, largely due to the slower pace and less abundant martial arts sequences. Still, what we do get in terms of action (particularly in the last 40 minutes) is very good indeed. The best of these scenes include a spectacular brawl in a temple where tables feature heavily, and a lengthy climactic pole fight between Jet Li and Donnie Yen in a storehouse.
As to whether Once Upon a Time in China II is quite as awe-inspiring as its predecessor is open to debate. Nonetheless, it’s still a very worthy follow-up.
Runtime: 112 mins
Dir: Tsui Hark
Script: Tsui Hark, Chan Tin-suen, Cheung Tan
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Siu Chung Mok, David Chiang, Donnie Yen
Once Upon a Time in China III (1993)
This time around, Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), Yee Siu-kwan (Rosamund Kwan) and Leung Foon (Siu Chung Mok) travel to Beijing to meet with Wong’s father Kei-Ying (Shun Lau). Empress Dowager Cixi, China’s rule of this period, has decided to throw a Lion Dance contest. In practice, however, an undercurrent of gang warfare exists underneath the competition’s colourful surface. The most powerful and ruthless of these gangs is run by oil factory boss Chiu Tin-Bai (Jin Chiu).
Wong also overtly betrays more of his true feelings for Yee Siu-kwan when he learns that he has a love rival in the shape of dashing Russian diplomat named Tomanovsky (John Wakefield), who has gifted her with one of the world’s first motion picture cameras. As it turns out, however, this Russian and his allies have some ulterior motives behind their presence in the city.
The third entry in the series is somewhat campier in tone when compared with its predecessors. The martial arts scenes have some really blatantly overdone wirework this time around, while the villains are generally of the “one-note cackling bully” variety. However, if you’re prepared for the added daffiness then it’s still a spectacular couple of hours’ worth entertainment. If anything, the lighter and more colourful atmosphere offers some welcome relief after the darker Once Upon a Time in China II.
The production has an even more extravagant look about it than the earlier films, partially due to the fact that much of it was actually filmed in Beijing’s Forbidden City (whereas previous entries were mostly shot on Hong Kong backlots), and partially because of the heavy emphasis on hundreds of martial arts-trained extras donning richly garish lion costumes. In fact, while the lion dance sequences are an eye-filling delight to watch, they take up a bit too much of the runtime. Mind you, the climactic monster movie homage sequence featuring a huge, metal-jawed lion head biting its way through a wooden structure to get at our heroes is truly inspired. Hark also provides a few touching smaller moments amid the riotousness, including a beautifully-framed long shot where Yee takes pity on a crippled antagonist by quietly opening up her umbrella to shelter him from the rain.
Runtime: 112 mins
Dir: Tsui Hark
Script: Tsui Hark, Chan Tin-suen, Cheung Tan
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Siu Chung Mok, Xin Xin Xiong, Shun Lau, John Wakefield, Jin Chiu
Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997)
The sixth and final entry in the Once Upon a Time in China series follows Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), Yee Siu-kwan (Rosamund Kwan) and Club Foot (Xin Xin Xiong) when they relocate to America during the Wild West era. While they ride their caravan through the desert, they encounter a roaming gunfighter named Billy (Jeff Wolfe) who befriends and joins them. That night, when they set up camp, they are attacked by a band of Native Americans.
After their escape attempt, they are separated. Yee, Club Foot and Billy end up in a town where they get acquainted with the local Chinese community. Amongst the residents is Buck Teeth So from the first in the series (who was previously played by Jacky Cheung but has been replaced here by Kwok-Pong Chan). Unfortunately, they have to deal with the corrupt local authorities, who operate with an unpleasant combination of thuggishness with bigotry. Wong, meanwhile, has been taken in by the Native Americans after suffering from memory loss in the aftermath of their attack. Yee organises a search party and eventually traces him in their camp. However, he fails to recognise her…
Once Upon a Time in China and America is a well-meaning entry in the series which explores the theme of racial prejudice. Sadly, good intentions don’t always translate to good movies. While Tsui Hark took on a producer role here, he wasn’t involved in either writing or directing. His absence really hurts. The action sequences here are jerky and graceless, frequently using jumpy edits and tricksy camerawork in lieu of the elaborate choreography of the earlier films. Ironically, Hark’s replacement in the director’s chair was Sammo Hung, one of Hong Kong’s most notable martial arts talents and an accomplished enough genre director in his own right. Perhaps, American moviemaking regulations meant that it wasn’t possible to assemble some of the more fanciful setpieces which we can plainly see in the films which he made on his home turf. Jet Li still pulls off some impressive martial arts moves here and there but, on the whole, the action is messy.
Most of the film’s other aspects aren’t great either. The American cast members (especially those playing the villains) tend to give overly hammy performances. The amnesia twist in the storyline is a rather unconvincingly handled device which doesn’t really add a lot of substance to the proceedings. While the recreations of period China in the earlier films were filled with colourful life and detail, the Wild West settings here are largely routine. Lowell Lo’s synth-heavy score feels out of place.
It’s all the more of a shame because the film’s examinations of the early stages of Chinese immigration to America and the various prejudices which erupted between ethnic groups certainly had potential. As it is, this is definitely the weakest film in this box set.
Runtime: 100 mins
Dir: Sammo Hung
Script: Sze-to Cheuk-hon, Shut Mei-yee, Sharon Hui, Philip Kwok, So Man-sing
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Xin Xin Xiong, Kwok-Pong Chan, Jeff Wolfe, Joseph Sayah
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
These 4K restorations largely look and sound fabulous, especially the extravagant setpieces and bright colours of the first and third films. The fourth has a comparatively artificial feel to its colour grading which just reeks of late-1990s straight-to-DVD fare.
Highlights amongst the extras
There are commentaries for the first three films as well as numerous interviews, featurettes and trailers spread amongst the four discs, plus a collector’s booklet. Here are some of the most notable of these extras:
Once Upon a Time in China Commentary by Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
Mike Leeder and Arne Venema are both directors and producers (and the former also an actor) who have worked within Hong Kong’s film industry. They give an excitable commentary here with covers the casting, contemporary Hong Kong politics and Tsui Hark’s filmmaking style.
They also provide us with plenty of invaluable trivia. Prior to Jet Li, the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung was frequently represented on screen by an actor named Kwan Tak-hing. The film’s length (134 minutes) was unusually long for a Hong Kong film since distributors usually preferred short (90 or so minutes) runtimes to allow for more screenings. Indeed, the 1977 WWII epic A Bridge Too Far was so heavily cut during its screenings in the territory that many of the credited actors in the cast were nowhere to be seen! Actor Steve Tartalia (who plays the British henchman named Tiger) was one of the few Western actors working in Hong Kong who could speak Cantonese - a notoriously hard language to learn because many words have nine “tones” which all mean entirely different things. He also doubled for James Marsters on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. The flaming arrows seen flying through the air in the film are not achieved by either optical effects or wirework; they are the real (dangerous) thing.
Once Upon a Time in China II Commentary by Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
Another lively commentary from this pair, who maintain that the sequel is better than the original (something which I don’t quite agree with, although the do make some good points favour of their argument). They reveal that White Lotus Cult (who are the film’s main villains) existed in real life. However, they weren’t as fanatically nationalist as they are depicted here; apparently, their behaviour in the film was more of a commentary on Maoism which, my extension, tapped into fears about the then-imminent transfer of the territory of Hong Kong into Chinese hands.
Filming was held up for a time because Jet Li, Tsui Hark and Golden Harvest all fell out with each other. Li had three stunt doubles during the fight scenes - one of whom (Joe Chu) also played the White Lotus Cult leader in the film. For this instalment, the opening theme song was sung by none other than Jackie Chan, who was as well known in Hong Kong as a pop star as he was as a martial arts actor.
Once Upon a Time in China III Commentary by Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
It’s yet another great commentary track courtesy of these two guys. The pair of them are actually somewhat critical of the film, with Mike in particular knocking it on its overabundant lion dance scenes, excessively obvious wirework and some inconsistencies in the portrayal of Wong Fei-hung’s character. However, they also admit that it does have some very good individual scenes.
Their comments in relation to some of the cast members here are also interesting. John Wakefield, who plays the Russian diplomat Tumanovsky in the film, was a former Mormon missionary in China who decided to try his hand at acting. Despite the fact that he can speak perfect Cantonese, his role was overdubbed because the filmmakers felt that he had too much of an accent. Many of the Russian extras were exchange students who came from Russia and other Eastern European countries. Xin Xin Xiong (who played “Club Foot”) became so accustomed to playing a character with a damaged leg that he had posture problems for some time after filming had wrapped.
The Legend of Wong Fei-hung
This documentary is presented in three parts - one per each of the first three discs. Cumulatively, it provides a good deal of useful background information about the historical figure upon which a record-breaking total of over 100 films are based - including the six-film Once Upon a Time in China series. Numerous experts are interviewed here and we pay a visit to various locations, including his home village, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and a memorial hall in Foshan (completed in 2001) which was dedicated to him. We also take a look at his martial arts techniques (including on-camera demonstrations and examples from the films themselves), medical practices and those flamboyant lion dances. Unfortunately, we are told that that Leung Foon (played by Yuen Biao in the first film and Siu Chung Mok in the subsequent two) died at a very young age. It’s a particular shame since he was the only one of Fei-hung’s disciples to have learnt his martial arts techniques in their entirety.
The Making Of Once Upon a Time in China and America
While the film itself isn’t great, this featurette provides plenty of behind-the-scenes footage plus interviews with Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark, Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Jeff Wolfe and others. It’s especially interesting to learn that (despite the film’s sunny visuals) it was shot in Texas over winter, causing challenges for the Chinese cast members who weren’t used to shooting in the extreme cold. On the other hand, it all ends with a high note courtesy of a spirited New Year party.
The first film here counts as one of the undisputed gems of 1990s Hong Kong cinema and the second doesn’t fall far behind. While the quality drops somewhat with each entry here, it’s still something of a treasure trove for fans of action cinema from this part of the world.
Once Upon a Time in China
Once Upon a Time in China II
Once Upon a Time in China III
Once Upon a Time in China and America