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
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 European 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 one movie.
- The repeated failure to get a successful photo of Wong Fei-hung, since no actual photographs of him exist. Allegedly.
- Honor Before Reason - The heart and soul of this series.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Master Kwan in the second film seems to have also mastered this except that all he had was an iron breastplate concealed beneath his tunic.
- Martial Pacifist: Doctor Wong Fei-hung again.
- The Messiah - Doctor Wong Fei-hung.
- 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.
- My Kung-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours
- 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.
- The Other Darrin - Lian Quan from the 2nd movie onwards. Buck-Teeth-Soo changes actors after being Put on a Bus.
- 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.
- The Quisling - Both Aunt 13 and Buck-Teeth-Soo are regularly accused of being this by their fellow Chinese.
- 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.
- Star-Making Role - This film practically made Jet Li's career.
- Theme Music Power-Up - "To Be A Hero" plays whenever Wong Fei-hung takes on the forces of evil in said-movie-series.
- 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.