Once Upon a Time in China - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

Once Upon a Time in China Reviews

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Super Reviewer
½ December 31, 2011
The iconic theme song of this Wong Fei Hung trilogy defined "heroic" for my generation of Chinese kids. Revisited this childhood staple with my family on New Year's Eve. With the comedy, nonstop action, romance and stirring story of overcoming oppression, this is another all-in-one Hong Kong miracle product from Tsui Hark. Jet Li looked great in this film, that face is just so righteous. And you get to see him in a 3-piece suit at the end!

The dialogue was beautiful and rousingly poetic, that's something non-Chinese speaking audiences will lose. The common saying "Ren yi shi feng ping lang jing, tui yi bu hai kuo tian kong" translates to: "Bear it for a while to calm the wind and still the waves, retreat a step to broaden the sea and clear the sky" explains why the Chinese people often swallow their pride to avoid confrontation for the 'greater good'. Until the red-blooded, patriotic Doctor Wong Fei Hung comes along and yells at China to wake up and stand up to their Manchurian and foreign conquerors, to bleed for their motherland.

The film is a bit too long at 2+ hours. It won't bore you, but you have to go into it prepared for a LotR-type epic.
Super Reviewer
½ August 17, 2011
While I am still getting used to Hong Kong films, this was a surprisingly good critique of western civilization and the chaos that it breeds. Hark finds clever ways to show how the eastern spirit has been drowned out by the sounds modernity. Also, not being an action fan, I was oddly really enraptured by the Kung fu.
Super Reviewer
½ January 25, 2007
mesmerizing. easily some of the greatest martial arts sequences ever filmed. the story is epic and entirely engaging, the camera work is excellent, and the fight scene at the dock at the end of the film is one of my favorite in all of film history. a wonderful kung fu film and one of li's best.
Super Reviewer
½ August 14, 2010
Hark Tsui attempts to make country changing anthology like Sergio Leone and for the most part he succeeds. It's a lot more extensive than you'd expect and the message is powerful to say the least. It is an epic in the true sense of the word. Jet Li proves himself to be a multi-talented superstar in this, showing a lot of great emotion and unbelievable fighting ability. This has some great early wire work and most importantly looks realistic, unlike something from The Matrix. This movie has so many detailed sets, costumes and characters. It's hard not to enjoy and appreciate.
Super Reviewer
½ October 15, 2009
The first time i saw this movie i hated it it was only with repeated viewing that i grew to love it. I think the reason why i initially didn't enjoy it was because i was expecting light entertainment and i just wasn't prepared for a multi layered film such as this. This film marks for director Tsui Hark the peak of his creative genius when he was making this film there was a lot of worry in Hong Kong regarding the 1997 hand over to China Tsui manages to transfer this tension and uncertainty into the film terrificly and he injects each shot with a passion for his nationality and his love for the chinese heros such as Wong Fei-Hung. The next element of this film that is truly magnificent is the cast each character is given sufficient screen time for complete character arcs Jet Li's acting is done with a level of honour and intensity that has been lacking in every performance he has done since. Yuen Biao has perfected playing these king of roles because he has played many similar roles in the past yet he still manages to bring something new to the role and gives it a fresh twist that is lacking in Max Mok's performance in the sequels. there are also strong performances by Jackie Cheung, Rosamund Kwan and Kent Cheng. overall the character that steals the show is master yim i would say he is better than the rest of the cast combined. Now to the point that most people watch kung fu films for the fights the great thing about the fights in this film is that each fight improves on the one before it so there is a visible progression before the end ladder fight which i consider to be the best wire enhanced fight ever put on film.

overall i would recommend this film to anyone who is looking for a great movie but if you are looking for realistic fighting i would point you in the direction of Bruce Lee's films and the Prodigal Son . please note to get the most out of this film it must be seen in its original language and in its original Widescreen format and it must be seen no less than five times to get an idea of its multi layered complexities
Super Reviewer
July 27, 2009
A rockem sockem movie from start to finish, 98 percent fighting 2 % story line. Early Jet Li. The special effects are good for time frame movies was filmed. I enjoyed it much better the first time I saw it, the 2nd time I couldn't wait for it to be over. 3 stars is all I can give it, and now its on to Number 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on.
Super Reviewer
½ June 13, 2007
Once Upon A Time In China is based (loosely!) on the life of Wong Fei Hong, a legendary martial artist and healer who lived in China at the end of the 19th century. Tsui Hark is a Hong Kong movie maker from the old school and as such is far more interested in hardcore chop socky action and broad comic asides than historical accuracy and here it's more in evidence than ever. But with Jet Li and Yan Yee Kwan in the mix any disappointment with the lack of subtlety on display is soon forgotten. The action sequences are truly breathtaking and pretty much non-stop, and the scenes between Li and Kwan and particularly good. The moral message and symbolism of China's loss of cultural identity through political corruption and the influence of foreign powers is clumsy at best, but these themes firmly take a back seat to the stars physical prowess. If you want a historical epic I'd look elsewhere, but if you want a healthy dose of martial arts mayhem and non stop action, you could do a lot worse.
Super Reviewer
March 30, 2007
Tshui Hark really made us to have self-reflection as Chinese!
Super Reviewer
½ October 26, 2006
The first time I watched this movie about the adventures of Wong Fei-hong, a legendary martial artist from the China Dynasty of the late nineteenth century. Jet Li's infectious grin and dazzling martial arts skills made him an excellent choice to revive the legend.
Super Reviewer
June 30, 2006
Despite the entry of high-wire kung fu - this is a great movie. Martial arts and drama never looked so good.
Super Reviewer
½ May 13, 2008
Jet Li at his best, the legend is brought to life by Jet Li. The movie had very good action with a good story too, the piturisation is very good and the whole of the action looks real. The movie is based on the life of Wang Fei Hung a Chinese martial arts master and also a doctor played by Jet Li.
Super Reviewer
½ February 10, 2011
Highly kinetic martial arts film in terms of execution and framing that even the slower scenes look exhausting. Jet Li starred as the legendary Wong Fei Hung(previously played by Jackie Chan in "Drunken Master"), an herbalist/martial artist/patriot whose principles and nationalistic standpoint were caught off-guard by the sudden wave of American culture and western arrogance. The film, directed by Tsui Hark, portrayed the Chinese as highly gullible people who will never back out from a fight yet will consider alien words that describe America(such as 'Gold Mountain' and 'gold dusts in the rivers') as absolute truths. Yes, it's chief villain were basically Americans(with irritating voices and performances) but never the entirety of the country's mores. The root of the conflict was not mainly a cultural clash, nor a friction created by opposite viewpoints. "Once Upon a Time in China", although at certain times heading into something as close as that, is not a propaganda film. It's a film that rendered illegalities at its most chaotic, and how a country bound in simplicity such as 19th century China would respond to such: with utter defiance, and some kicks and punches on the side to further the point. There's no question about Jet Li's ability in fight sequences, but in his acting range, there sure is. I see him do flashy moves, repel fights, engage in some himself, rescue people, assist sick people with his herbal know-hows, but I never saw him do all of it as Master Wong. He goes through the more demanding scenes, actor-wise, with facial expressions that suggest indifference. We can't blame him. He's an action star. But I sure would have preferred it if he had brought some Jackie Chan-type enthusiasm into the character. The kicks landed perfectly, the punches were thrown with accuracy, I even felt the abundant patriotism in the air. But Wong Fei Hung, amid his highly impressive fight scenes and ballistic fingers(that match perfectly with some lead balls), is sorely missing both in presence and in character. And where's some drunken boxing?
Super Reviewer
September 19, 2008
A blasting picture,the new father of inventive fine martial art and Jet Li in a career role,spoken only when necessary (think of the equivalent Schwarzenegger), impressive virtuoso professionalism by Tsui Hark (why did he go to Hollywood next for..Double Team???) and a sweet smell of nostalgia for original spectacle film,not the Bournes and Spielbergean "epics".
Super Reviewer
March 2, 2006
Forget the flaws, overlook the sentiment and ignore the poor quality of filmmaking and you'll enjoy this film immensely. A flawed masterpeice, true perfection has to be imperfect.
Super Reviewer
February 27, 2008
I?ll start with the positive, when this movie really gets on with the ass-kicking it works better than most in its genre. Jet Li is an amazing martial artist, and he?s in his prime here. The choreography is amazing and the film is pretty well shot. That said, the rest of the film is a complete mess. The movie?s exposition is poor if not non-existent, I tried to keep track of the movie but I eventually had no idea who all the sides were and why they felt the need to kill each other. The acting and dialogue are really poor and there are some very peculiar attempts at humor that mostly fall flat. This kind of plotless spectacle would easily be dismissed in a Hollywood blockbuster; I don?t think they should be forgiven in a Hong Kong movie either. Also, the video quality of the DVD I watched looked like ass. If this is the best print of a movie from 1991 they could find, that?s pretty sad.
Super Reviewer
April 10, 2007
Beautifully photographed and staged martial arts epic, an ode to a legenrady chinese hero and reaffirmation of China's national identity during a period of occupation. The film may never reach the highs of Zhang Yimou's martial arts epics, but they would not exist without this one.

Some of the most amazing fight scenes ever put to film are present here.
July 13, 2012
2/3/01 - After seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (see below), I saw that some of the reviews compared it to Once Upon a Time in China. Intrigued, I decided to rent this on DVD. I was pretty disappointed. The action scenes are cool, but the movie as a whole seemed pretty sub-par. One redeeming point was the commentary track by Ric Meyers. It contained lots of cool info about kung-fu movies.
½ February 26, 2012
When a film's title begins with the phrase "Once Upon a Time..." it has a reputation to live up to grand and epic standards set by director Sergio Leone with his mesmerizing cinema classics "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Once Upon a Time in America". I am proud to say that "Once Upon a Time in China" not only lives up to the grand standards with the preconceived notions of the title, it ends up being one of the best Hong Kong films I have ever seen by going far and above the normal trappings of the typical martial arts film.

The film follows the life of Wong Fei Hong (portrayed by Jet Li), a historical legend in China for his renowned skill in martial arts. This historical setting takes place in the late 1800s with the invasion of the British and other foreigners. Fei Hong must take on local gangs, corrupt government officials and the "foreign devils" in order to preserve the cultural heritage of China.

This film marks the 99th time a film about the historical figure Wong Fei Hong... and that's quite a feat. Though I haven't seen even a fraction of the films based on him I would be confident to say that "Once Upon a Time in China" has to be one of the best, if not the best, film to portray the character even if the historical context of the film may take plenty of leeway with his story. Jet Li is just captivating in the lead role with his martial arts grace and his character is punctuated to greater extent by colorful secondary characters, which includes a stuttering western educated dork and hefty merchant. The addition of a character oddly named "Aunt 13" adds a shy and cute romantic interest which beautifully contrasts against the chaotic and violent political backdrop.

The direction by renowned director Tsui Hark is just dripping with cinematic greatness. He was one of the first Hong Kong directors to really take interest in good dialogue and cinematic style in order to tell a captivating story as opposed to just focusing on martial arts action sequences... but don't let that fool you into thinking the martial arts fights sequences are lacking. He loads the film up with some of the best fight sequences to ever be found in the the martial arts genre by mixing both practical and wire work. He films these sequences to tremendous skill and dexterity by always placing the camera in alluring angles to get the most out of every fight sequence.

If the film would be guilty of anything it would for being overly ambitious. The script tries to tackle too many aspects at once making the story overly complex and confusing at moments, especially watching the uncut Hong Kong version in its original Chinese Language with English subtitles. Hark tries to convey that Hung is trying to save his country from "foreign devils" as his beloved homeland was decaying from corrupt officials. All this introduces too many characters that can make it hard for the audience to follow. The story of Hung's beef with a rival gang, on the other side of the spectrum, isn't elaborated on enough, with the motivations of each side flimsy at best.

Even with its faults of being too ambitions, "Once Upon a Time in China" ends up being the best Asian martial arts film I have ever seen. It takes the "martial arts" film to the next level by combining jaw-dropping action sequences with entrancing film-making and dialogue to make a truly great cinematic experience. This new style to the martial arts film resonated with Chinese audiences who were sick of slap-stick comedy and art-house approaches to the genre as the film was a huge success, paving the way to five entertaining sequels.
½ July 25, 2009
a landmark of kungfu cinema, and a screenworthy vehicle for Li & Kwan's meteoric rise, 13th aunt or otherwise.
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