Unfortunately, such people found much armor for their argument with this film. At the time of its release, flaws were largely overlooked, because this film really made a sizable dent in American perception of HK films as weightless confections. Once Upon A Time In China had a sizable anti-colonial theme guaranteed to endear itself to the heart of any liberal, and the fight scenes were superb; the flaws were glossed over in reviews, since a HK film was finally getting relatively large theatrical release, and this was a chance to convert many viewers to the cause. Moreover, the film has genuinely brilliant moments and, overall, is a superior example of "serious" martial arts filmmaking. Ten years later, with HK film thankfully occupying such a large space in video stores and movie theaters, fair criticism can be launched.
Simply put, Once Upon A Time In China feels like the work of not one but several different directors and crews. The film's radical tonal shifts can be appalling - a brutal almost-rape scene is followed by a dazzling fight on ladders which it's difficult to get into fully because of the shock of the previous scene. The tones range from crude comedy to sophisticated political commentary to dazzling fight scenes lacking the humor of a Jackie Chan film to downright brutal scenes of violence that aren't fun to watch at all. If the scenes were tonally coherent, this would be a classic. As it is, the film has earned classic status because of its fight scenes (my favorite being a rainy one with a giant log used as a weapon) and position as one of the first HK films seen by a large audience.
The story of Wong Fei-Hung (a legendary kung-fu master and doctor) has been told many times in martial arts films, and Hark chose to go with a mostly serious approach, rather than the comic one applied previously by Jackie Chan; it's just as well, since Jet Li doesn't do comedy well at all. On top of this, he adds a not-so-subtle broadside against both imperialism (including a disturbing scene of British soldiers firing on unarmed citizens, the results of which are predictably bloody) and those who sparked disunity in China. Long before Ang Lee, Tsui Hark wanted fight scenes to be about ideas as well as the action. The performances are uneven, but the moral ambiguities shown are fascinating, and the cinematography (every other shot wide-angle) is dazzling. Conclusion? Once Upon A Time In China is a very good film, but its puzzling failure to be cohesive makes it less than perfect filmmaking, martial arts showcase or no; it's full of jostling ideas that never come together. Its political content can be confusing for those of us failing to come from China, though seeing an uncut version does help greatly. It's not the best introduction to HK filmmaking for the unitiated. But it did have a sequel which excelled the original, and it's a monumental film in the history of HK filmmaking - and film buffs should treasure it as such.
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