Once Upon a Time in China Reviews
It's important to acknowledge that prior to seeing Once Upon a Time in China I was familiar with Jet Li strictly through his English-language action with the exception of the big-budget Wushu epic Fearless (2006). As such, I was not fully certain of what to expect from Once Upon a Time in China and so it didn't reach my expectations. Much greater in scale and narrative-driven than a standard martial arts vehicle, Once Upon a Time in China puts a greater emphasis on its genuine narrative than simply on action, even though it succeeds at doing both. However, as a viewer not familiar with the historical relevance of the narrative I lean more favourably towards the action-driven part of the story. But throughout the slow-paced and extensive story, it ends up being rather sporadic.
Due to its Chinese roots in history it is difficult to ascertain for certain how much of the story in Once Upon a Time in China maintains historical fidelity and how much is dramatized for the sake of forming an action narrative. I have no idea what the story means to audiences in its native country, but I can appreciate the style in which it is told. However, there seems to be a very large scale of events going on in the course of the story and between the larger scope of events and the many characters they try to fit into it, the characterization gets lost and keeping track of everything becomes more challenging. I might have been able to follow it all more if I spoke the language of the film, but between attempting to admire the style of the film and pick up on all the themes in the dialogue-heavy dramatic sequences I managed to get lost. Western audiences are bound to find more appreciation for Once Upon a Time in China on the basis of its martial arts choreography than the relevance of its Eastern culture and from that perspective there is inconsistency in the overall value of the cinematic experience.
Whenever the action happens in Once Upon a Time in China, it tends to last variable rates of time. There are various long-running scenes which are empowered by the strength of the choreography and the visual style which captures it all, but it isn't always easy to determine when they're gonna come in. The fight scenes prove strongly impressive thanks to the dedicated efforts of the cast and the way they target each other and bounce off of the surroundings. The use of wires and stunt doubles is key to this all, but the spectacle of action entertainment is enrichened by the powerhouse physical performances of the bodies on display. The action occurs in a versatile collection of settings which give strong and colourful backgrounds to every scene along with the detailed production design and costumes even if there aren't fights occurring in them. The cinematography manages to consistently keep the appeal of the scenery empowered in the backdrop, and the use of long-shots, Dutch angles and slow motion manages to add further atmosphere to it all. And the musical score sweeps this all up, ensuring that the entire film works to serve as a strong piece of testimony to Tsui Hark's directorial credibility.
In terms of acting, it should be noted that Once Upon a Time in China still manages to succumb to some of the flaws of even the most generic kung fu movies. Namely, the English-language version has dubbing with voice actors who are a little too juvenile to capture the spirit of the actual actors, and they seem to just chatter over each other a bit much. But then again, that's to be expected. Yet somehow even the Chinese-language version is propped with mediocre dubbing. It matches the spirit of the cast more, but it still fails to sync up with the mouths of the actors much of the time. It is a feature that viewers must overlook much of the time to see the greater value in Once Upon a Time in China.
Amid it all, Jet Li delivers a solid leading performance. In the role of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung, Jet Li manages to deliver natural charisma in his own native language. Even if the story itself can become a little too big to track at times, Jet Li effectively remains a competent and charismatic lead who grasps the wisdom of his character without faltering on the emotional humanity of the part or the occasional flair for comic spirit. Though the many characters of the film get lost in the crowd, Jet Li's heroic spirit manages to carry himself through the entire film with dedication to the script. Of course, the greatest asset he contributes is his incredible martial arts skills. Jet Li manages to fight as if he is a dancer as he does it with swift speed yet smooth grace and never back down to anyone. Though he puts fear in the character, he doesn't integrate it into his technique and keeps a consistent flow throughout his endless spectacle of martial arts. Jet Li's fighting spirit in Once Upon a Time in China is far more kata oriented than in American productions due to its focus more on showing off techniques than on using them solely to create violent visual content, and the passion of his ambition manages to carry the real spirit of martial arts very nicely.
Once Upon a Time in China is a culturally rich film which ties strong martial arts choreography into a tale of a legendary Chinese folk hero and is empowered by Jet Li's role in capturing both sides to this, but with its extensive running time and slow pace making the wide scope of the story less-interesting to keep up with, the story itself proves less structurally sound for a western perspective.
Tsui Hark's 1990s reboot of the character Wong Fei-Hung has been regarded as a big success, & which also helped Jet Li's career a big deal.
But the film itself, like most of Tsui Hark's pre-2000s work, was a big mess in story-telling, besides those catchy Kung Fu action, in addition to its totally unnecessary, tiresome, long-winding length.
I quite enjoyed the first movie in this massive franchise. Its good to finally see a Jet Li film were there not flying in the air and fighting on strings. Anyway, the movie is basically about Americans trying to take over China. Some of the gangs buy into the Americans policies and attack the people that are trying to keep China the same. Its quite a simple storyline, but there are other aspects to the story, like the down and out fighter who wants to fight Jet Li so he can prove that he is the best and open his own fighting school. The fighting scenes were quite impressive and the different disciples who are working for Jet Li, we're quite funny. Aunt Yee, who was the lady character, did become annoying after a while but the showdown at the end was brilliant, mainly because it reminded me of the old Kung Fu movies and the ladder work was amazing. Anyway, the film does seem a bit long but it's an enjoyable movie which is worth a watch. Enjoyable!
You can tell that this film had quite a big budget because of the epic scenes but it still looks unAmericanised. Personally, I think that there is a hidden message behind the movie, from a Chinese point of view, which is why this franchise was so big overseas. The added wit to the script made the movie original and interesting but it's the action that's second to none. I just hope that the rest of the movies in this franchise, are in the same calibre as this one.Â
Worldwide Gross: HK$30million
I recommend this movie to people who are into their Jet Li movies about a doctor trying to stop China from becoming Americanised. 6/10
Also the film is quiet funny with some great comic turns. Definitely worth seeing.