Sunday, July 19, 2009

Once Upon a Time in China 1 and 2

R2 France

Though generally unknown to Western audiences, Tsui Hark is considered a giant among Asian filmmakers and this exceptional epic, combining hard-hitting martial-arts action with romance, comedy, history, genuine poignance, and sharp insight into the effects of the century-long encroachment of Western civilization in Asia more than amply demonstrates why. The story centers on the exploits of Master Wong Fei-hung (a familiar figure in Hong Kong cinema) a 19th-century doctor, Confucian, and exceptional martial artist. As the film begins, he has just opened a new clinic in Canton Province. To help him with patients, he hires a few apprentices including Porky Lang (the comic relief) and Buck Teeth Sol, who was raised outside China and barely can speak the language. Wong is platonically involved with the lovely, worldly Aunt Yee, who has been abroad most of her life. Wong soon gets in trouble when he begins using his skills to protect and assist the poor and helpless in his community. As a result, someone torches his clinic, forcing Wong and his compadres to set off and get spectacularly staged revenge. They also try vainly to stop Western culture from changing traditional Chinese ways, but they soon find that they may as well be shoveling sand against a rising tide.

A classic in the martial arts genre, Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China, which has inspired three sequels, is a flashy, spirited film featuring Jet Li in one of his best roles. This period piece set in the 19th century deals with Western customs and modern weaponry and their effect on Chinese culture. It's too bad that this idea couldn't have been taken more seriously, rather than making all the Westerners into comic book bad guys. The plot and politics about Westerners ruining China really don't work, and the humor, like so many movies in this genre, is over-the-top hokey and made worse by dubbed voices that all sound American. What you're left with are spectacular, artful fight scenes, and these make up for the clunky script and goofball comedy. Li is a marvel, defeating hundreds of enemies with his small frame and quick, perfect movements. The final battle aboard a clipper ship is the movie's finest. This could have been an even better film if it took its subject matter and story seriously, but Once Upon a Time in China does succeed in being completely entertaining.

Before martial arts historical epics became all the rage in America, the Once Upon a Time in China film series was setting the majestic course that films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would eventually follow. This second chapter in the long-running saga brings back director Tsui Hark and international action superstar Jet Li in what can easily be called the top entry of the series. Once Upon a Time in China II sees director Hark showing early signs of his now legendarily energetic camera work and the trademark manic editing style he later perfected in films like Time and Tide. Those not familiar with the unique style of early-'90s Hong Kong cinema may be turned off by the film's occasional slow pace and its frequent failing attempts at wacky comedy. Yet, once the film's fight sequences begin kicking, the film really takes off. Choreographed by the gifted Yuen Woo Ping, moments like the stick fight between Wong Fei-Hung (Li) and Commander Lan (Donnie Yen) have a brutal elegance that only appears in the best movies of this genre. The film's heavy emphasis of Chinese history and culture may be lost on an audience just looking for another fast-kicking, high-flying kung-fu extravaganza, but those able to make it through to the gravity-bending climax will not be disappointed.


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