October 20, 2002 -- "Once Upon a Time in China 3" is another in the series of six films about legendary kung fu master Wong Fei-hung. This is the weakest entry in the first three films of the series, with a rambling story line, fight scenes that are not staged as well as those in the first two films, and poor picture quality. Since I not see this film in a theater (I saw it on DVD), I'm not sure if the poor image quality was due to poor cinematography, or a bad transfer to video or problems with the DVD itself, but it is noticeably inferior to the first two films.
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 second film in the series is the best of the three, followed by the first and then the third.
A number of films have been made about Wong Fei-hung, an actual historical figure in China, but most films don't bother trying to put him in a historical context like this film does. In this film, Wong Fei-hung is trying to make peace between various feuding martial arts schools who are competing in a "lion dance" competition that is actually a deadly battle over some golden prize called "bait." Don't ask me. This probably would make more sense if I understood Cantonese. The various martial arts schools want to win the prize for the prestige it will give them. The almost subliminal romance between Wong Fei-hung and Shao Yun (Rosamund Kwan, who is also referred to in the film as "Aunt 13," or "Aunt Yee") finally gets going in this film. There was always a hint of romance between these two, but nothing happened in the first two films. A handsome Russian named Tumanovsky (John Wakefield) starts hitting on Shao Yun, causing Wong Fei-hung to go into a jealous panic. Among other things, Tumanovsky gives Shao Yun a movie camera.
Later on, the Russians get involved in a political conspiracy. In addition to the foreigner conspiracy, the industrial revolution is also part of the story with the movie camera, guns and a big steam engine recently installed in a factory run by Wong Fei-hung's father. Both the foreigners and the encroaching technology cause a crisis of identity and confidence for Wong Fei-hung. He feels out of his element. This can be seen as a metaphor for what was happening to the whole country at this time. When he finally gets around to kicking the crap out of the Russians, it is the film's way of saying that China will ultimately prevail because its people are strong.
There are some good fight scenes in the film, highlighted by the battle between Wong Fei-hung and "Club Foot" (Xin Xin Xiong, who played Kung of the White Lotus Sect in the second film in this series). The final fight scene at the lion dance competition is a colorful pageant, but lacks the impact of the one-on-one fights in the first two films, mainly because the participants are all wearing giant lion head masks. One of the lion head masks has jaws with steel teeth, another has four spears and another shoots fire out its mouth. Not your usual fight scene. Unlike the first two films in this series, Yuen Woo-ping did not choregraph the fight scenes, and it shows. The fine cinematography of Arthur Wong, who worked on the first two films, is also absent in this film. This film rates a C.
The video transfer to DVD was not as good as the first two films (the DVDs for the three films were all distributed by Columbia-Tristar and Media Asia Group). It appeared to be washed out and it lacked contrast. One theory about why the video is poor on the DVD is that the "bonus feature" of 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 a good deal of 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. Reportedly, the video on the dubbed version is superior to the subtitled version, but the editing is inferior. Thus, the preferred version of the film, the original theatrical cut and the original soundtrack, suffers because of the presence of the 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. This DVD rates a C.
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