Before Wilson Yip’s Ip Man, Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Ronny Yu’s Fearless, a certain Tsui Hark was busy making wuxia movies based on the tales of a legendary martial arts master. Though this is not unfamiliar territory for Cantonese cinema, Once Upon a Time in China was one of the most heralded epics to have ever been produced in the country’s history upon its release in 1991.
It also thrust the then comparatively unknown Mandarin speaking actor Jet Li into the limelight. The relative novice was not the first choice to play the legendary figure of Wong Fei-hung, with Jackie Chan originally planned to lead Hark’s fantastical historic thriller, only for the deal to fall through. Chan’s bad luck turned out to be Li’s good fortune and thus a new icon of Chinese cinema was born.
Set in the 19th Century Canton region, the first of the trilogy of movies presented by Eureka Classics in this brand new Blu-Ray boxset opens with Li’s navy mistakenly attacked by the British during celebrations aboard their ship. The imperialist forces disband the navy, forcing Wong to stand up to the various rulers of the unequal treaties dividing his homeland.
Partly based in reality, albeit on a figure of whom much is written but little is truly known, Once Upon a Time in China is allowed a certain degree of artistic licence. The story is fanciful and needlessly complex, but that’s exactly how a movie series like this should behave. It takes a smidgen of tradition – and slightly xenophobic attitudes towards foreigners that does not at all seem to be delivered ironically – and smatters it with fast-paced fight sequences and elaborate set pieces.
A climactic fight sequence in the original movie is considered one of the greatest in the genre for a reason as Jet Li superbly owns the well-choreographed action. However, all three movies each have their own showcase fights to boast about with the battle scene between a more mature Li and the reliably brilliant Donnie Yen’s (Ip Man, Iron Monkey, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) corrupt military official Commander Lan is a real highlight across the trilogy.
In each case, these moments are what make the films worth watching. The acting can be described as, at best, enthusiastic. Yuen Biao and Rosamund Kwan the only real notables present besides Li and Yen, whose roles are restricted by their need to be either bumbling comedy foil getting into mischief in the case of the former, or the romantic love interest in terms of the latter – who herself only features in the original. The art direction is superb and nothing short of what Tsui Hark’s reputation would have you believe. After all, it is primarily these features that “earned” him the right to work in Hollywood with one of its upcoming action heroes Jean-Claude Van Damme on forgotten back-to-back mid-90s flops Double Team and Knock Off.
Each film is sourced from brand new 4k restorations and presented on a 4-disc set (with collector’s booklet) absolutely packed to the rafters with extras, including the ‘final chapter’ in the series, Once Upon a Time in China and America. There’s also archival interviews with many of those involved in the films, including Jet Li, and a fascinating new video essay by film critic Travis Crawford. A documentary on The Legend of Wong Fei-hung also helps to add some context to the plot of the story – and, if nothing else, it will make you want to plan a visit to the museum featured that was commissioned in his honour around the turn of the millennium.
All in all, the films are hit and miss, with mostly quite hard-hitting, high-flying, impressively choreographed hits. The collection is a must-own for fans of the series, or just those interested in high quality kung-fu films. If you’ve seen higher profile films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers or The Grandmaster here in the West, it may also be worth a punt on this sublime collection.
The Special Limited Edition box set of the Once Upon a Time in China trilogy is available now from Eureka Classics.