October 20, 2002 -- "Once Upon a Time in China" is the original in a series of six films of that name. I made the mistake of watching this as a part of a martial arts marathon which lasted about five hours, with time out for beer and popcorn. I recommend smaller doses.
The first three films in this series are all quite similar. They deal with a turbulent period of Chinese history around the end of the 19th century when China was trying to deal with several major foreign powers. It was also trying to deal with the industrial revolution that seemed to be leaving China behind. In addition, all three films star a young Jet Li ("Romeo Must Die") as legendary martial artist-doctor Wong Fei-hung. These films were made long before Jet Li became a star in Hollywood. All three films are directed by Tsui Hark. Two of the three share the same writers and the same martial arts coordinator, Yuen Woo-ping (also the fight coordinator for "Iron Monkey," "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). Several actors appear in all three films, including Li and Rosamund Kwan (who plays "Aunt 13," also referred to as Shao Yun, or "Aunt Yee"). The three films also share some of the same music on the soundtrack. The first two films in the series are superior to the third.
The first film deals with unscrupulous gangs who are running protection rackets in China. They also kidnap people to be sent to America to work in harsh conditions. Wong Fei-hung's (a number of martial arts films are based on the legend of this man) martial arts school, Po Chi Lam, is burned after an attack by the thugs. Then Aunt 13 is kidnapped by the thugs, who have allied themselves with a master fighter named Iron Robe Yim (Yee Kwan Yan of "Iron Monkey"). Yim is not really a bad guy, but he has fallen on hard times, so he compromises his principles and goes to work for the local thugs. Wong Fei-hung is also being sought by the local authorities because of a frame up, so he is being opposed by the local mob, the authorities and representatives of foreign governments. He has to fight his way through the whole lot of them in order to save Aunt 13.
The climactic fight between Wong Fei-hung and Iron Robe Yim is spectacular. The fight takes place high above the ground, on ladders for the most part, in a kind of warehouse. A lot of gravity-defying wire stunts are used in this scene. It is not believable, but it is fun to watch. A similar kind of fight scene was staged a decade later in "The Musketeer" by Xin Xin Xiong, who was a stunt double for Jet Li in this film. Xin Xin Xiong also played the character "Club Foot" in the third film in this series, and Kung in the second film in the series. The stunts and fights are well staged in this film, and that is the main thing in this genre, but the cinematography is excellent, and the overall production values are better than average, too. As for the acting, not much is required in this kind of film. The plot tends to jerk about sporadically with bewildering changes of pace and direction. There is a very minimal sort of romantic theme in the film, too. The plot is probably a lot smoother for those who speak Cantonese (although Jet Li reportedly speaks Mandarin in many films, and is dubbed in Cantonese). Neither dubbing nor subtitles seem to be able to keep up with the original spoken dialogue. Some plot details remain inscrutable to the Western viewer. This film rates a C+.
The DVD I saw is distributed by Columbia-Tristar and Media Asia Group. The audio and video quality is better than most Hong Kong releases, but that isn't saying much. It features not only the original Cantonese soundtrack, but English, French and Mandarin as well (all in Dolby (tm) digital mono sound. Available subtitles are English, Spanish and French. I saw it in Cantonese with English subtitles (which are easy to read because they are thoughtfully located in the dark part of the wide screen letterbox picture (where all subtitles should be located). Being able to hear the film in its original language is almost always preferable to hearing a dubbed soundtrack (except for cartoons, which are all dubbed anyway).
Unfortunately, the English dubbed version of this DVD reportedly has the better video transfer. Why is that? One theory is that the English dubbed version of the film takes up so much of the DVD's capacity that there isn't enough room left over for a decent Cantonese or Mandarin version of the film. The English dubbed version is not just another audio track, but a whole different version of the film, with some footage chopped out. This feature is common to all three DVDs of the "Once Upon a Time in China" trilogy. This is one "bonus feature" that should have been discarded in favor of better video quality on the original cut. Thus, the preferred version of the film, the original theatrical cut and the original soundtrack, suffers because of the presence of the chopped-down English dubbed version of the film. This was a bad decision on the part of Columbia Tri-Star. Purists will want to find another version of this film. The aspect ratio of the widescreen format is 2.35:1. The DVD also has an English theatrical trailer and English text information on some of the cast members. It also has an audio commentary track by Hong Kong film expert Ric Meyers. It also says right on the DVD that this is the original theatrical release of the film, for what that's worth. This is a better than average DVD for this genre, but the video transfer could have been a lot better.
Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.