Once Upon a Time in China or Wong Fei-hung is a Jet Li classic with an interesting message. While this 1991 movie shows through the cinematography, there are some unique film techniques to work around its limitations. The fight scenes are elaborate and beautiful, and the overall feel of late-1800s China comes through powerfully.
This is a film that portrays the legendary figure of Wong Fei-hung dealing with the battle of modernity and tradition which you just can’t get from a history textbook. Although the production quality is lacking, it is definitely worth a watch if you are interested in martial arts films or Chinese history.
You can find the entire message of the movie in the beginning scene. They invite Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) onto the Black Flag Army commander’s ship to watch a lion dance. The foreigners mistake the firecrackers during the dance for gunfire and start firing on the ship with their own rifles. After the misunderstanding, the commander gives Wong Fei-hung a fan inscribed with all of the unequal treaties which China has signed with foreign governments, saying that he hopes someday they will all erase them.
At the end of the 1800’s, the Qing dynasty began to weaken. And modernizing Western countries started to carve out pieces of China to claim as their own. At this time, the people of China were searching for a way to keep their culture and their country together. As the modern technology and weapons were challenging them. Wong Fei-hung embodies this struggle, because he is a master martial artist and an expert in Chinese medicine. He represents the Chinese problem of how to maintain traditions while dealing with foreign and internal threats.
Once Upon a Time in China does a great job of using the martial arts skills of the actors for its message. Early on, there is a chaotic brawl between the militia led by Wong Fei-hung and the extortionist Shaho Gang. There are battles between Jet Li and an intimidating American soldier. The ultimate battle at the end of the film is a beautifully fight between Li and “Iron Vest” Yim. Part of it takes place entirely on ladders. This fight was so well-coordinated and executed by the actors that it was essentially copied for the final battle of The Musketeer.
This movie is all about fighting, but it actually has quite a few metaphors if you know where to look. Master Yim, being an Iron Vest expert, is invincible. But in the end Western bullets take him down. Clearly, brute force martial arts (tradition) alone can no longer stand up to modern technology.
In another symbolic turn of events, the Shaho Gang burns down Wong Fei-hung’s martial arts school and then seeks protection from the U.S. outpost by offering to kidnap Chinese women to sell as prostitutes abroad. Fei-hung’s burned school represents the crumbling nation of China. And the gang shows the sentiment that some Chinese were selling their nation to foreigners.
These messages are a little on the nose and can seem like a moral judgement that the innocent and decent Chinese were the victims of evil Westerners. But we have to remember that they made this film for Chinese people who are aware of their history. Wong Fei-hung was a real historical figure and people remembered him fondly enough as the “Chinese Robin Hood”. There is a museum dedicated to him in Foshan, China.
The six part Once Upon a Time in China series puts Fei-hung in the middle of historical events that he was not actually a part of, but in this way he steps out of history and into legend to become an embodiment of the struggling Chinese identity as the country entered the 20th century.
Once Upon a Time in China may not teach you about the exact specifics of history. But it can show you the overall feeling of China’s historical memories. It manages to bring up ugly facts like the period of time when they tricked Chinese people into hard labor in America with promises of the gold rush – something we don’t really talk about in the West – while still maintaining lighthearted comedy and entertaining fight scenes.
The movie is not for everyone. There are some brutal moments, heavy subject matters, and the video and sound quality are lacking. At the same time, there are plenty of entertaining characters and funny moments. While the choreography is some of the best in martial arts films. Jet Li and his costars make up for the lack of resources dedicated to editing and camera tricks with their fighting skills. The movie has the same problem as the rest of the series, trying to find a voice somewhere between goofy and serious. But it earns its place as one of the classics of martial arts films despite its flaws.
Overall, I would say this is not a movie that you can re-watch countless times. It is a little too long and a little too hard to follow. But, you should see it at least once if you want to learn a little about the Chinese national spirit through one of their folk heroes. And you can see a film that will contribute to the genre for years to come.