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Film: Once Upon a Time in China
Never Was A Hero Needed More.

Once Upon A Time In China is a 1991 wuxia martial arts film directed by Tsui Hark, a long time collaborator with John Woo.

The protagonist is Doctor Wong Fei-hung (played by the inimitable Jet Li), philanthropic physician of the Po Chi Lam clinic and the greatest warrior of Real Life 1875 Canton. Possessing a skill in the Martial Arts that was matched only by his kindness and mastery in healing, Master Wong was respected by friend and foe alike, protecting the citizens of Canton from the predations of The Triads and the Tongs and the greedy Western invaders who sought to exploit China's great riches. He inherits his father Wong Kit Ying title as one of the Ten Tigers of Canton, the greatest warriors of Southern China.

The story begins when the love of his life, "13th Aunt" (not by relation, but because their fathers are sworn brothers) returns from a 3-year education in England. Though the perspective and charm derived from her western education fascinated Fei Hong, an awkwardness formed in their relationship as it clashed with his traditional eastern values. On that same day, a young unemployed-acrobat, Lian Kuang (played by Jackie Chan film veteran Yuen Biao), wanders into Canton seeking instruction in the martial arts. Instead, he blunders into and insults the Sha-Her ("Sand-River") Gang, a vicious Triad that terrorizes and fleeces the innocents of Canton, already destitute from simultaneous British and American exploitation.

A great warrior though Wong Fei Hong may be, he can only watch helplessly as the western government indiscriminately guns down countless innocent Chinese at an opera performance in an attempt to apprehend assassins targeting Western dignitaries. He is then framed for the crime by the Sha-her Gang, and confined to his clinic by his own government so he could heal those injured and dying from the massacre. Now unhindered, the Sha-her Gang start to kidnap scores of women to be sold into prostitution in America, and gain the alliance of Yen Jer Dong, a martial artist whose skin can be broken by no weapon. With Lian Quan as his apprentice, Master Yen seeks to break out of poverty by challenging Master Wong, to establish his school in Canton through the fame and respect of defeating the Tenth Tiger.

It is in this desperate climate that Doctor Wong Fei-hung must fight not only to save the people of his country, but also to reconcile with what it means to be a idealistic and heroic Chinese warrior in an increaingly cynical and westernized world.

Once Upon a Time in China revitalized not only Jet Li's (then) flagging career, but revitalized credibility in Kung Fu and Wuxia cinema as a medium that is just as capable of conveying an emotionally rich and politically relevant story as ANY European Arthouse film, through a combination of magnificent cinematography, tour-de-force acting and a heartfelt and human story. This paved way for future films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

Followed by two more sequels starring Jet Li, before a falling out between him and Tsui Hark that resulted in him being replaced by 19 year old Zhao Weng Zhou in the next two films; Tsui and Li would not work together until they reconciled for Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate 19 years later.

In the mean time Jet Li does return to play Wong Fei Hong twice more in the embarrasing slapstick In Name Only "sequel" Once Upon A Hero In China (which is completely seperate from the continuity of the first 3 films), before returning to the franchise proper in Once Upon A Time In China And America, directed by Sammo Hung (who also choreographed the fight-scenes). In this film, the stage is moved to The Wild West era San Francisco, creating a unique Wuxia meets Spaghetti Western film.

A prequel entitled Iron Monkey was released, chronicling the adventures of Wong Fei Hung as a little boy with his father Doctor Wong Kit Ying, played by Donnie Yen, who would later rise to fame playing Ip Man.

Once Upon A Time In China is worthy continuation in the legacy of Wong Fei Hung films, which presently count at over 100 films since the black-and-white era. Only time can tell if this glorious saga will continue.
This series provides examples of:

  • A Boxer By Any Other Name: It's fairly obvious that the White Lotus Society of the second film are standing in for the Righteous Society of Harmonious Fists.
  • Acro Fatic: Porky, one of Wong's disciples, though he hates the nickname and insists he's normal sized.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Master Yen. He mostly became a villain to escape crushing poverty and starvation. In his dieing gasps, he was forced to realize that Kung Fu, the only remaining pillar of his life, was insufficient in the face of advancing technology.
  • Anachronism Stew: Earlier instalments just couldn't decide if they are set in 1850's, 1860's or 1890's. This is especially obvious with guns and Western male attire.
  • Anti-Villain: Master Yen Jer Dong of Movie 1 and General Nar-Lan Yuen-Shu of Movie 2.
  • Badass: Every warrior in this series, especially Wong Fei-hung himself.
  • Battle in the Rain: Master Wong Vs Master Yen.
  • Calling Your Attacks: Porky is very fond of doing this.
  • Canon Discontinuity: Once Upon A Time In China 4 and 5 (wherein Jet Li was replaced by Zhao Weng Zhou) have for all intents and purposes being disowned from the continuity, so much so that in the new Complete Once Upon A Time In China Blu-Ray Colletion release, only the first-three and the sixth (the ones starring Jet Li) are included in the package. The less said about Once Upon A Hero In China, wherein Jet Li dresses up as a giant rooster to fight a centipede fomration, the better.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Eventually averted in that Fei-hung is finally engaged to Aunt 13 by the sixth film, wedding ring and all.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Wong's ability to fling a bullet hard enough to break things with it.
  • Chaste Hero: Wong Fei-hung is endearingly prude and shy when it comes to matters of love.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Lian Quan towards Aunt 13, much to Master Wong's annoyance.
  • Cultural Posturing: Subverted. While the series clearly runs on mild nationalism, it also points out in the second film that none culture or civilization is inheritently better - we are all humans and should help each other, regardless of race, country or language.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Pretty much whenever Wong Fei Hung fights. Even the big final fights are one sided with the opponent usually getting only one or two hits in.
  • The Ditz: 13th Aunt is a very sweet lady, but she's also rather... flighty.
  • Diner Brawl: Wong was just eating his noodles when the Shaho Gang came in for protection money...
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Lian Quan, and to a lesser extent Master Wong.
  • End of an Age: There is an ever present melancholy that pervades the entire franchise, as the era of the noble and heroic Chinese Warrior ends to pave way for westernization.
  • Evil Colonialist: Almost all Westerners.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Jackson is introduced as a greedy trader, but that's not covering his nature of Corrupt Corporate Executive and Smug Snake tendencies in the end, when he's revealed as human trafficker, holds the governor at the knife point and is openly talking about killing him and sailing away scot-free.
  • The Fool: Lian Quan in the Second Film.
  • Genre-Busting: It showed the world that Kung Fu cinema is a genre that is more than capable of being artistically poetic, emotionally deep and politically relevant as any art film.
  • Good Shepherd: The Jesuit priest is genuinely well-meaning, and even helps Wong Fei-hung when his own people are too afraid to come forward as witnesses against the Sha-Her gang and Taking the Bullet for him when the American Big Bad tries to have him shot.
  • Guns Are Useless / Guns Are Worthless: Mostly averted, with historically (and heartbreakingly) accurate results.
    • Though ironically, in the finale of the first film, Wong Fei-hung slays the American Big Bad by flinging a bullet so hard that it punches through his head.
  • Historical In-Joke:
    • Wong Fei-hung helps out a certain Doctor Sun (i.e. Sun Yat-Sen) in the second movie.
    • The repeated failure to get a successful photo of Wong Fei-hung, since no actual photographs of him exist. Allegedly.
  • Historical Villainupgrade: A few different places. Just to start, there was no massacre in Canton at the time or in the manner the movie portrays.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Tiger, Jackson's Dragon, was trying to strangle Lian Quan. During the struggle they both ended up with rope around their necks. He realise it too late and Lian hanged him high.
    • The leader of Shaho gang was trying to burn Aunt 13 in the ship's boiler. He ended up inside, thrown there by all the women he sold into slavery.
  • Honor Before Reason: The heart and soul of this series.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: High Priest Kung
  • Improbable Weapon User: General Nar-Lan Yuen-Shu's weapon when gets serious is a long bolt of fabric that he can somehow tighten up and swing with enough force to act like a combination of a whip and a staff. The first time we see it, it can be justified since it was obviously soaking in water for a long time, thus becoming very heavy. In the final battle, it will make sense to long time readers of Wuxia fiction that he channeled his Chi into the spun cloth-lance, much like how Master Yen Jer Dong channels chi through his body, and therefore hardens it's tactile strength enough to allow it to shatter stone while retaining its elasticity.
  • Improvised Weapon: Wong's western unbrella, which is also his Weapon of Choice. Porky was using a cello, while Lian Quan was using pig's leg.
  • In a Single Bound: A common staple of combat in the series, though Lian Quan in particular is fond of this.
  • Jabba Table Manners: The Sha-Her gang slurp down pork and guzzle wine after joining the American invaders by selling out the women of their country to slavery.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Porky-Rong, and also Lian Quan in the first film.
  • Karma Houdini: Invoked by Jackson - after all, who will chase him in America? He didn't live long enough to get there.
  • Kick the Dog: Second movie opening scene.
    • More like Roast the Dog! And not in a cooking sort of way.
  • Kingpin in His Gym: When Wong Fei-Hung meets General Nar-Lan Yuen-Shu for the first time, he's busy working out his martial arts form before surprising Wong with a sparring match, establishing that he's Wong's equal, and not schlubby Armchair Military cum bureaucrat like the rest.
  • Kissing Cousins: Averted in that Wong Fei-hung and Aunt 13 are not blood related relatives.
  • Large Ham: High Priest Kung of the White Lotus Society, from the second film.
    Priest Kung: (whilst striking multiple poses)"Guardians of Heaven, come to my aid! Destroy my enemy! God of Anger! God of Mercy...God of Defiance! Come!"*High-pitch battle cry*
  • Lost in Translation / Significant Haircut: Yen Jer Dong's foe cutting his queue (braid) during his introductory fight. In the 1870s, the Queue was still a cumpolsory part of Chinese national identity, and cutting one (much less your own) was tantamount to treason.
    • This makes Yen Jer Dong's desperate flailing of rage and pain as his OWN Queue was cut in his final battle with Wong Fei-Hung doubly heartbreaking; here we watch the absolute dissolution of a warrior and a man, desperately trying to cling to what little cultural-pride China has left to protect.
  • Made of Iron: Master Yen Jer Dong's "Iron Shirt" technique hardens his skin with chi to the extent that no blade may pierce him. Priest Kung in the second film seems to have also mastered this to the degree of repelling bullets except that all he had was an iron breastplate concealed beneath his tunic.
  • Martial Pacifist: Doctor Wong Fei-hung again. He tries to stop sizable chunk of the fights during the series... by blocking blows comming from both sides.
  • The Missionary: One shows up in the first movie. He ends up being the only man in the entire community willing to testify against the Sha-Ger gang.
  • The Mob Boss Is Scarier: In the first movie, the people hate and fear a local criminal gang, and throngs of people cheer to see Fei-Hung beat up the boss and some of his goons. When Fei-Hung asks for someone to testify against the gang however, all those people suddenly vanish.
  • Mooks
  • Mook Chivalry: Never more than three at the same time.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: While the imperial government is portrayed as inefficient, corrupt and Manchurian, it's still Chinese government and Chinese law. When given the opportunity to escape from prison, Wong decides to stay, because that's how law works.
  • My Kung-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours: Naturally.
  • Noble Profession: Wong Fei-hung is a doctor. Also, the Jesuit priest from the first film is genuinely well-meaning, a rare thing for a Westerner in the series.
  • Not So Different: In the second film, there is a montage where Eastern and Western Medicine join forces to heal the innocents injured by the White Lotus Cult's vicious attacks, to the backdrop of Wong Fei Hung's classic "Under The General's Orders" musical motiff, showing how in the end, all medicine is about healing the sick, whereever it may come from.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Inverted. Porky decided that under heavy, stylisized make-up and in professional costume no one will recognise him, so he will be able to pass as an absent actor. The moment he enters the stage, half of the audience instanty points him out.
  • Parasol of Pain: The Western Umbrella is Wong Fei-hung's signature Weapon of Choice. This is Truth in Television, as the real Wong Fei-hung created an entire martial art centered on this item, which has become quite common in 1890's China.
  • Pressure Point: As a doctor versed in Chinese Medicine, Master Wong is also a master of accupuncture, and it is this knowledge that allows him to break through Yen Zher Dong's seemingly invincible "Iron Shirt Chi Gong" in their final battle.
  • Race Traitor: Both Aunt 13 and Buck-Teeth-Soo are regularly accused of being this by their fellow Chinese, including, in a Moment of Weakness, the good doctor himself. However, the films generally depict their adoption of some Western customs in a more-nuanced light. Buck-Teeth-Soo's ability to speak perfect, unaccented English saves the day twice over in the climax of the first film, and Aunt 13's love of photography is ultimately treated as a modern reflection of a cultured desire to create art. If nothing else, the second film should dash any thoughts that the filmmakers are in favor of jingoism.
  • Reality Ensues: Whenever a gun is comes into the narrative in this series, it's ruthless and unfeeling roar instantaneously shatters the romantic-heroism of Martial-Arts combat.
  • Scenery Porn: Tsui-Hark's cinematography invokes a nostalgic-romanticism reminiscent of films like Gone with the Wind, wherein each freeze-framed shot resembles a living painting.
  • Serious Business: Lion dancing in the third film.
  • Shown Their Work / The Cast Showoff: Those are real martial arts moves being bandied about by Wong Fei-hung and his opponents.
  • Smug Snake: Chiu Tin-bak from the third movie.
  • Spaghetti Western: The gritty genre which was combined with Wuxia to create Once Upon A Time In China And America.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: "To Be A Hero" plays whenever Wong Fei-hung takes on the forces of evil in said-movie-series.
  • Training Montage: Durin the opening credits Wong is training the militia.
  • Tsundere: Aunt 13 in the later installments.
  • Warrior Poet
  • The Wild West: The stage for the sixth movie.
  • Worthless Foreign Degree: The British ambassador declines Wong Fei-hung's offer of medical assistance to the people injured by the White Lotus cult because he distrusts Chinese medicine, instead calling on the Western-trained Doctor Sun. This is later subverted when the ambassador comes to respect Doctor Wong, offers honest appreciation and admiration for his skills after Sun requests that he use his acupuncture skills to make up for a shortage of medicine.
  • Wuxia: The first in a movement of politically-relevant and artistically-respectable martial-arts films.
  • You Look Familiar: Donnie Yen plays Wong Fei-Hung's father Yong Kit-Ying in the prequel Iron Monkey. Ironically, he also played the villain General Narlan Yuenshu all the way back in Once Upon A Time In China 2, who was killed by Wong Fei Hung.

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alternative title(s): Once Upon A Time In China; Once Upon A Time In China2; Once Upon A Time In China II
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