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Film / Once Upon a Time in China

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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 Kei-Ying's 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 his grandfather and her father are Blood Brothers), returns from a 3-year education in England. Though the perspective and charm derived from her western education fascinates Fei-hung, an awkwardness forms in their relationship, as it clashes with his traditional eastern values. On that same day, a young, unemployed-acrobat — Leung Foon (played by Jackie Chan film veteran Yuen Biao in the first film, and Max Mok in all subsequent films) — wanders into Canton seeking instruction in the martial arts. Instead, he blunders into and insults the Shaho ("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-hung may be, he can only watch helplessly as the Western government indiscriminately guns down many innocent Chinese at an opera performance in an attempt to apprehend assassins targeting Western dignitaries. He is then framed for the crime by the Shaho Gang and confined to his clinic by his own government so he could heal those injured and dying from the massacre. Now unhindered, the Shaho Gang start to kidnap scores of women to be sold into prostitution in America and gain the alliance of "Iron Vest" Yim - a martial artist whose skin can be broken by no weapon. With Leung Foon as his apprentice, Master Yim 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 an idealistic and heroic Chinese warrior in an increasingly cynical and westernized world.

Once Upon a Time in China revitalized not only Jet Li's (then) fledgling 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 the way for future films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero (2002).

Followed by two more sequels starring Jet Li before a falling out between him and Tsui Hark that resulted in him being replaced by ninteen-year-old Vincent 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-hung twice more in the embarrassing slapstick In Name Only "sequel" Last Hero In China (which is completely separate 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 (for the time) Wuxia meets Spaghetti Western film.

Once Upon a Time in China is a continuation in the legacy of Wong Fei-hung films, which presently include over 100 films since the black-and-white era.

No, it's not a spin-off of Once Upon a Time. Just look at the year of release. Also has nothing to do with the one in the American West, the one during the Mexican Revolution (when it's called by that name), the one in America, the other one in Mexico, or the one in Hollywood.

Once Upon a Time in China provides examples of:

  • Acro Fatic: Porky, one of Wong's disciples, though he hates the nickname and insists he's normal sized.
  • Action Girl: Miao Sanniang in the fourth film, although she began as dark variety, like the rest of the Red Lanterns.
  • Alas, Poor Villain:
    • Master Yim. He mostly becomes a villain to escape crushing poverty and starvation, eventually selling himself to the services of the villainous Shaho Gang. In his dying gasps, he is forced to realize that Kung Fu, the only remaining pillar of his life, is insufficient in the face of advancing technology.
    • Clubfoot / Ghostfoot Seven in III is a violent, Jerkass, Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy who serves as The Dragon for the local Corrupt Corporate Executive...until he ends up crippled while chasing Ah Foon, whereupon his boss promptly fires him and the other Mooks laugh at and mock him, and he is rendered homeless and humiliated. His fate is so miserable that Fei-hung and his father take him in and fix him up, causing him to break down in tears and undergo a Heel–Face Turn, and becomes a series regular onwards.
    • Tomanovsky in the same film. He shows genuine romantic interest in Aunt 13 but is forced by his Russian masters to engage in an assassination plot against Prime Minister Li Hongzhang. He fails due to Wong's intervention and is killed off by his masters to tie up loose ends.
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • Earlier installments 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. Especially egregious since the whole series was filmed over a mere six years total and thus the actors barely age, yet it touches on historical events decades apart from one another.
    • Pirate king Cheung Po Tsai in the fifth film actually died in the 1820's in real life, whereas the film is set shortly after the Boxer Rebellion in 1899/1900, and as such Cheung is over 120 years old by the time the film's events.
  • Anti-Villain:
    • Master Yim of the first film who simply wants to survive and maintain China's martial arts traditions in times of change.
    • General Nap-lan Yun-seut of the second film, who, from his perspective, is simply trying to hunt down and eliminate a group of traitors looking to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.
    • Tomanovsky in the third film is caught up in a plot to assassinate the Chinese Prime Minister Li Hongzhang, but only because the Russians believe that doing so will avert a war.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: In the first film, Wong brushes aside a missionary's preaching with the question "I arrested a criminal today. Will Jesus be my witness?". A few scenes later, the Shaho Gang, with their leader Tong released because nobody would testify against him, commit another atrocity, and the missionary steps forward and provides an answer: "I will be your witness."
  • Artistic License – History:
    • A few different places. Just to start, there was no massacre in Canton at the time or in the manner the film portrays.
    • Also the death of Lu Haodong (Luke) in the second film happened very differently in real life, being executed along with several other captured revolutionaries after a show trial.
    • The entire sixth film, since Wong never visited the United States in his lifetime.
  • Bat Deduction: In III, Wong Fei-hung reads a letter that tells him the Chinese Prime Minister Li Hongzhang will be assassinated during a Lion Dance tournament, but he deduces all on his own the exact moment the assassination will take place and what the assassins will use as a distraction.
  • Battle in the Rain: Master Wong Vs Master Yim.
  • Berserk Button: Hurting innocents - especially his loved ones - is not something Wong will tolerate well.
  • Big Bad Ensemble:
    • In I, Honor Before Reason martial arts master Yim is forced to join Tong from Shaho Gang to escape poverty and starvation. In turn, Shaho Gang Leader Tong teams up with a group of American slavers serving under Mr. Jackson to sell their own country's women into slavery.
    • In II, High Priest Gao of the White Lotus Society and Evil Reactionary General Nap-lan Yun-seut. The former instigates the plot by launching a terror campaign against anything Western, while the latter takes advantage of the chaos the White Lotus cause to crush the Republican revolution of Sun Yat-sen. Fei-hung has to deal with them both.
    • In III, Chiu Tin-ba is a Corrupt Corporate Executive and gangster who terrorizes the Wong family and seeks to win the lion dance tournament through bullying the competition, but much more serious is Tomanovsky who is plotting to use the tournament as a cover to carry out a political assassination on behalf of the Russians.
    • In IV, an expy of the White Lotus Society return as the Red Lantern Society, an all female group of martial artists who want to forcibly remove all foreigners from the country, only to be overshadowed by an evil German general and his two henchmen.
  • Bottomless Magazines: People with guns have a ridiculous rate of fire for 19th century firearms.
  • Bully Hunter: Dr Wong is feared by the villains of Canton for being this trope; and in the first film single handedly takes down the Tong and his gang terrorizing the boss of a Tea House for protection money.
  • The Bus Came Back:
    • Bucktooth So returned in the sixth and final film after being Put on a Bus. He is played by another actor however.
    • Aunt 13 returns in the fifth film after staying out of the fourth.
  • Busman's Holiday: Wong isn't seeking a martial arts war in during his travels in the second and third films (his intended goal in the second film is to attend a medical conference, and in the third to visit his father and seek his blessing for his impending marriage to Aunt 13, but he ends up having to fight one anyway.
  • Calling Your Attacks:
    • Porky is very fond of doing this.
    • Wong usually only calls out his most famous technique, "No Shadow Kick". It's hilariously averted in "Last Hero In China" where he calls out "No Shadow Kick" but does a completely different attack instead. His opponent is understandably confused and lampshades it.
  • Canon Discontinuity: Once Upon A Time In China 4 and 5 (wherein Jet Li was replaced by Vincent Zhao) have for all intents and purposes being disowned from the continuity, so much so that in Eureka's UK Once Upon A Time In China Trilogy release, only the first-three and the sixth (the ones starring Jet Li) are included in the package. The Criterion Collection US box set, however, includes 4 and 5. The less said about the In Name Only sequel Last Hero In China, wherein Jet Li dresses up as a giant rooster to fight a centipede formation, 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.
  • Central Theme: The central theme of the series shows the European stranglehold over the lives of the Chinese people during the twilight of Qing Dynasty, and the futility of romanticized Chinese ideals. While the evils of Western imperialism is a major topic, the films also take a more nuanced approach in arguing that Western people are also capable of good, and Western knowledge can also be used to aid the Chinese people, as shown by the positive portrayal of the Jesuit priest in the first film and medical practitioners in the second film. Furthermore, the second film depicts the White Lotus sect's anti-Western ideals as a dark mirror to the Europeans' imperialism and racism; showing that Cultural Posturing by either Chinese or Westerners can be negative to both the practitioners and the victims.
  • 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: Leung Foon towards Aunt 13, much to Master Wong's annoyance.
  • Combat Pragmatist:
    • Master Yim hides a knife at the end of his braided hair to catch opponents unaware.
    • High Priest Gao claims to be immune to bullets, but actually hides a iron plate beneath his robes.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: How most Qing officials are depicted in the series.
  • Culture Clash: This happens occasionally with Wong and Aunt 13, as well as Wong and Dr Sun, the latter who practices modern Western medicine.
  • Cultural Posturing: Subverted. While the series clearly runs on mild nationalism, it also points out in the second film that no culture or civilization is inherently 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. Except in the second film, where Fei-hung and Yuenshu were nearly equal in skill.
    • The Mexican bandit in the sixth movie, who is effortlessly beaten up by Wong once disarmed of his guns, despite being a decent brawler. Not much is expected from a simple Wild West outlaw versus one of China's greatest martial arts masters.
  • Damsel in Distress: Aunt 13, as the sole female protagonist in the cast and not trained in martial arts, frequently gets kidnapped or placed in danger.
  • Darker and Edgier: The fourth film starring Vincent Zhao, which recycles elements from the second (a militant anti-foreigner organization being villains), and third (another lion dance competition) films. It also comes with a Downer Ending.
  • The Ditz: 13th Aunt is a very sweet lady, but she's also rather... flighty. The first film had her trying to take a picture of Wong's home, with a flash camera, while it was on fire with her still inside!
  • Diner Brawl: Wong was just eating his noodles when the Tong and his gang from Shaho came in for protection money...
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Leung Foon, and to a lesser extent Master Wong.
  • Downer Ending: The fourth film, where the main German villain escapes after Wong defeats his dragons, his new love interest being killed after her Heel–Face Turn, and Wong and company being forced to flee the capital city in the midst of a Boxer Rebellion-like event.
  • The Dreaded:
    • Wong Fei-hung's name alone is enough to inspire fear and awe in anyone hearing it. More than once, his opponents immediately backed away or tried to run once they realized who they were dealing with.
    • The fifth film's pirate king Cheung Po Tsai, who unlike all other villains in the series, is based on a real life person, who raided southern China and fought both the Qing Emperors and the Portuguese colonists in the early 1800's, making him over 120 years old by the time he fought Wong and seemingly immortal.
  • Eloquent in My Native Tongue: Inverted Trope for Bucktooth So, who is struggling to learn Chinese due to having spent most of his life in the America but able to speak and read English fluently. He did later manage to relay a message in fluent Chinese by memorising and repeating it.
  • 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 materialistic Westernization.
  • Enemy Mine:
    • The Shaho Gang in the first film begins to offer their services to the American slavers after repeated humiliations by Wong Fei-hung.
    • General Nap-lan Yun-seut in the second film cooperates with the White Lotus Society cultists so after they storm the Western compound where Dr. Sun is offering his services, he can have an excuse to enter and root out the revolutionary.
  • Ethnic Menial Labor: Chinese citizens, hopeful for a new start to get the vaunted wealth and success in America, are tricked by Chinese collaborators and dealers selling fake contracts with exit taxes on food and lodging for large amounts of money. The ones that don't get thrown overboard when ill on the way to America, are branded and used like animals upon arriving and are killed if they try to escape.
  • Evil Colonialist: Almost all Westerners, although there are exceptions. The colonialists are shown heading the Western Movement, abusing and killing native Chinamen at their leisure and appropriating their resources while insulting their practices.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: After Wong Fei-hung exposes and shuts down the slave trading ring at the end of the first film, the official who's been harassing him throughout the movie thanks him for "assisting" city hall in capturing the criminals.
  • 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 to be a human trafficker, holds the governor at knifepoint and is openly talking about killing him and sailing away scot-free.
  • The Fettered: Wong, both morally and culturally. He doesn't abide any wrongdoing and will always try to diminish conflicts where he can, and is considerably reserved and anxious about admitting his affection for Aunt 13 due to their familial relationship. He's also considerably loyal to the Imperial government as reflected by his tonsured hair style even though the government is portrayed as inefficient, incredibly corrupt and Manchurian. In Wong's mind, it's still the Chinese government and therefore Chinese law. When given the opportunity to escape from prison after being wrongfully arrested, Wong initially decides to stay, because that's simply how law works. If Aunt 13 is in danger, however, he'll drop the rules and come running to the rescue.
  • Firearms Are Revolutionary: This trope is an essential plot point, as the presence of firearms is symbolic of the End of an Age where the era of the noble and heroic Chinese warrior ends to pave way for materialistic Westernization. Firearms in the film completely avert the common Guns Are Worthless tropes seen in this film genre when used by foreign colonialists and are ruthlessly effective at mowing down even the toughest fighter. Even Master Yim, a powerful Old Master and probably one of the greatest examples of traditional Chinese Martial Artist skill and Charles Atlas Superpower, is mowed down after being riddled with bullets. Summed up tragically by Yim himself upon his death.
    Master Yim: We can't fight guns with Kung Fu.
  • 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.
  • Ghost Pirate: The 120 year old pirate king Cheung Po Tsai is suggested to be this.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Wong is a doctor who will go out of his way to help people, even showing kindness to his enemies. That doesn't mean he won't unleash a brutal beatdown on anyone who deserves it.
  • 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 Shaho Gang and Taking the Bullet for Aunt 13 when the American Big Bad tries to have her shot.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Wong occasionally gets this when another man shows interest in Aunt 13.
  • Guns Are Worthless: Mostly averted, with historically (and heartbreakingly) accurate results. Though they can be worthless when the troops using them are proud graduates of the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy.
    • 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.
  • Heel–Face Turn:
    • In the third film, "Clubfoot" Qi goes from gang enforcer to one of the heroes in true Androcles' Lion fashion.
    • Miao Sanniang in the fourth film, who defects from the Red Lantern Society after witnessing their atrocities against foreigners, and helped rescue Wong's family and worshippers trapped in a burning church. She is killed off by her compatriots as a result.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Performed by the Jesuit missionary in the first film, saving Aunt 13 from a hail of bullets.
    • Luke also pulls one off in the second film, saving Wong and Foon from General Yuenshu's bullets.
  • Historical Domain Character: Wong Fei-hung himself, and there are plenty of films starring the character before and after Jet Li's interpretation. Wong also helps out a certain Doctor Sun (i.e. Sun Yat-Sen, who led the revolution in overthrowing the Manchu emperors) in the second film. Li Hongzhang and Cheung Po Tsai in the subsequent films also count.
  • Historical In-Joke: The repeated failure to get a successful photo of Wong Fei-huong, since no actual photographs of him exist. Allegedly.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Tiger, Jackson's Dragon, was trying to strangle Leung Foon. During the struggle they both ended up with rope around their necks from opposing ends. He realizes it too late and Leung hangs him high.
    • Tong, 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 attempted to sell into slavery.
  • Honor Before Reason: The heart and soul of this series, especially represented by Master Yim in the first film, whose death hammers the point home.
  • Iconic Sequel Character: "Clubfoot" Qi is an iconic and recurring character in the film franchise but doesn't appear in the series until the third movie.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: After capturing her, Shaho Gang Leader attempts to rape Aunt 13 before selling her off as a prostitute, but she injures him before being knocked unconscious. Foon's timely arrival ends up saving her.
  • Imagine Spot: In the second film, while Wong was training her, Aunt 13 imagined that their shadows were dancing instead.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: High Priest Gao
  • Improbable Weapon User:
    • General Nap-lan Yun-seut's weapon when he 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 Yim channels chi through his body, and therefore hardens it's tactile strength enough to allow it to shatter stone while retaining its elasticity.
    • In the sixth film, Wong uses some fabric to deflect bullets fired at him.
  • Improvised Weapon: Wong's Western umbrella, which is also his preferred weapon. Porky uses a cello, while Leung Foon uses a pig's leg, reflecting his side job as a butcher.
  • Inferiority Superiority Complex: Master Yi, an impoverished, starving, down-on-his-luck martial arts master who dreams of opening a Kung Fu school to give himself a sense of dignity, to which end he picks a fight with Wong Fei-hung, takes money from gangsters and even turns on his own student, all out of shame of the humiliating life he is now leading.
  • In a Single Bound: A common staple of combat in the series, though Leung Foon in particular is fond of this.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: In the final fight between Yim and Wong, members from the Shaho Gang prepare to open fire until they are discovered when one of them accidentally shoots another while pointing it at him to instruct him on how to use it.
  • It's Personal with the Dragon: Tiger, Jackson's American martial artist bodyguard, ends up in a personal feud with Wong and his disciples to the point he decides to kill them off by himself.
  • Jabba Table Manners: The Shaho 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 Wing, and also Leung Foon 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.
  • Karmic Death:
    • Tong the gang leader of the Shaho who is burnt alive in a furnace by all the women he attempted to sell into slavery.
    • Pirate king Cheung Po Tsai in the fifth film, who is crushed by all the loot chests he gathered throughout his lifetime.
  • Kick the Dog: Done almost literally in the opening of the second film, which features the White Lotus society burning all Western material and influences they can get their hands on... including a dog.
  • Kingpin in His Gym: When Wong Fei-hung meets General Nap-lan Yun-seut 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 a scrubby Armchair Military-come-bureaucrat like the rest.
  • Kissing Cousins: Averted in that Wong Fei-hung and Aunt 13 are not blood related relatives.
  • Knows the Ropes: Nap-lan Yun-seut's weapon in the second film is a thick coil of rope which he used to kick serious ass, even giving Fei-hung a hard time in their penultimate battle.
  • Lancer Versus Dragon: The first film ends with Wong's protege and the lancer, Leung Fu (as played by Yuen Biao) fighting the main dragon, the ironically-named Tiger, while Fei Hung deals with Jackson's cronies.
  • Large Ham: High Priest Gao of the White Lotus Society from the second film.
    Priest Gao: (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)
  • Leitmotif: As of this film, "A Man of Determination" has become Wong Fei-hung's official battle theme.
  • Lighter and Softer: The fifth film starring Vincent Zhao, a lighthearted action adventure romp against a pirate king, in contrast to the Darker and Edgier fourth film.
  • Made of Iron: Master Yim's "Iron Vest" technique hardens his skin with chi to the extent that no blade may pierce him. Priest Gao 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 coming from both sides.
  • Mirroring Factions: In the second film, there is a montage where Eastern and Western Medicine join forces to heal the innocents injured by the White Lotus cultists' vicious attacks, to the backdrop of Wong Fei-hung's classic "Under The General's Orders" musical motif, showing how in the end, all medicine is about healing the sick, wherever it may come from.
  • The Missionary: One shows up in the first film. He ends up being the only man in the entire community willing to testify against the Shaho Gang, and dies saving Aunt 13 in a shootout.
  • The Mob Boss Is Scarier: In the first film, 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 the Chinese government and Chinese law. When given the opportunity to escape from prison, Wong initially decides to stay, because that's how law works. Wong later delivers this point to both the bureaucratic Prime Minister Li Hongzhang and anarchist pirate king Cheung Po Tsai.
  • My Kung-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours: Naturally. Master Yim tries to prove this against Wong to bolster his status.
  • A Nazi 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. Same applies to the Red Lantern Society in the fourth film, a Gender Flip of the White Lotus Society.
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight: Whenever a gun is comes into the narrative in this series, it's ruthless and unfeeling roar instantaneously shatters the romanticized heroism of martial arts combat. Although it's never a good idea to throw away your guns and take on Wong in hand-to-hand combat, as the Mexican bandit in part six found out.
  • No Kill like Overkill:
    • Master Yim gets shot to death by American troops (who didn't realize he was technically on their side), and the troops waste easily over a dozen bullets on him, despite other characters being more of a threat to them.
    • The Red Lantern leader in the fourth film, being riddled with bullets by German troops while ignorantly believing that she could block bullets, before being beheaded.
  • Noble Profession: Wong Fei-hung is a doctor, and so is Dr. Sun Yat-sen in the second film. Also, the Jesuit priest from the first film is genuinely well-meaning, a rare thing for a Westerner in the series.
  • No Place for a Warrior: A tragic example with Master Yim. He's a powerful martial arts master with a set of impressive skills that probably took a lifetime to master and can use the "Iron Shirt" technique to harden skin with chi to the extent that no blade may pierce him Despite that, he lives on the streets in constant poverty and disgrace, performing tricks for spare change just to survive. Even after defeating a capable, renowned warrior, at the end of the day he's on the street again starving in the pouring rain and getting miserably spat upon by prostitutes. He ends up joining the Shaho Gang to earn enough money to open his own school and gain some sense of belonging in a world that completely rejects him and his mastery of martial arts.
    Master Yim: "What's the use of being a Kung Fu expert? Can't make a living."
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: When Wong presents a petition to the government requesting that they do something about the disorder caused by the announcement of a Lion Dance tournament, he gets met by a functionary who acknowledges receipt of the petition rather than an official willing to discuss his concerns. As he leaves, he bitterly comments that he likely won't receive a reply until the tournament is over.
  • Occupiers Out of Our Country: The White Lotus Sect from 2 are a group of anti-Western extremists who want all foreign influence, however beneficial, driven out of China. These guys are introduced by burning a dog to death because it was a foreign breed, are shown attacking and burning down a foreign language school, forcing Wong to take the displaced students of the school to the British consulate, and at one point, they even burn a cross in front of the consulate in a scene that may remind American viewers of another sect known for its bigotry and intolerance (though with far different goals than the White Lotus).
  • Oddball in the Series:
    • The sixth film, being a combination of Wuxia and The Western, where Wong takes on a corrupt mayor and the bandit he hired. It is unlikely that they'd cross paths had Wong stayed in China.
    • Also the fifth film, which takes on some supernatural elements as Wong fights a 120-year old pirate king who could move and fight just as well as a man less than half his age. Stock villains of the series such as Western colonialists and xenophobic Chinese cultists are entirely absent.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Inverted. Porky in the first film accidentally shoos away the actor of a Chinese opera, so he hastily attempts to replace the actor and decides that wearing heavy Chinese opera make-up and costumes will make sure that nobody in the audience would recognize him. The moment he enters the stage, half of the audience instantly points him out and laughs out loud.
  • Parasol of Pain: The Western umbrella is Wong Fei-hung's signature weapon. 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.
  • Pocket Protector: The pocket watch that Sun gave Leung Foon saves his life when he was shot by a bullet in the second film. Luke lampshades this. Sadly averted later in the filmwhere Luke got shot in an area where his own watch couldn't protect him.
  • Police Are Useless: While Wong always states that they should always let the authorities handle issues rather than take the law into their own hands, he invariably ends up having to do so anyway. Even during the finale of the third film, where one Lion Dance team brought weapons to the tournament and were openly murdering the other teams, the hundreds of guards present do nothing to restore order, leaving the task of doing so to Wong, Foon, and Clubfoot.
  • Post-Final Boss: Jackson acts as this in the first movie. The climax fight of the film is between Master Wong and Yim. However, after that, Wong confronts Jackson towards the end and kills him with a flicked bullet to wrap up the plot.
  • Pressure Point: As a doctor versed in traditional Chinese medicine, Master Wong is also a master of acupuncture, and it is this knowledge that allows him to break through Yim's seemingly invincible "Iron Shirt Chi Gong" in their final battle.
  • Race Traitor: Both Aunt 13 and Bucktooth So 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. Bucktooth So'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.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Wong delivers one to the Obstructive Bureaucrat Prime Minister Li Hongzhang in the third film, noting the futility of hold a martial arts/lion dance tournament in the face of the superior technology of the Western powers, and called for greater enlightenment of the Chinese people through education and political reforms.
    • Wong also delivers one to pirate king Cheung Po Tsai in the fifth film, calling out his misuse of an official uniform to engage in piracy and pillage, only for Cheung to respond by calling out Wong in serving the selfish agendas of the current Qing Emperor and wearing a Manchu braid.
  • 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.
  • Say My Name: Wong calls Aunt 13 by her real name in the second film when they have to part ways to survive.
  • Self-Restraint: After he gets arrested, the captain of the Fushan police tells Wong that the guard thinks that the local governor was wrong to lock him up and offers him a chance to escape. Wong declines, saying that laws exist for a reason and shouldn't be disregarded casually. After Soo comes and informs him that Aunt 13 was captured by the Shaho Gang's human trafficking ring, he decides that this is a serious enough reason to justify breaking out, and leaves.
  • Sequel Goes Foreign: The sixth film set in the The Wild West, although Wong in real life never visited the United States.
  • Serious Business: Lion dancing in the third and fourth films.
  • Shown Their Work: Real martial arts moves that belong to the style used by Fei-hung are employed by Jet Li. The moves of some of his opponents are also true to the styles of the times.
  • Significant Haircut: One that is probably Lost in Translation for most Western audiences; Yim's foe cutting his queue (braid) during his introductory fight. In the 1870s, the queue was still a compulsory part of Chinese national identity, and cutting one (much less your own) was tantamount to treason.
    • This makes Yim'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.
  • Smug Snake: Chiu Tin-bak from the third movie. He clearly sees him as some kind of brilliant schemer and successful businessman, but he's really just a loudmouthed, greedy criminal who repeatedly picks fights with Fei-hung and his family, and is practically a cartoon villain by the end of the movie.
  • Spaghetti Western: The gritty genre which was combined with Wuxia to create Once Upon A Time In China And America.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute:
    • The fourth movie replaces Aunt 13 with Aunt 14, due to Rosamund Kwan's refusal to reprise the character without Jet Li. Kwan eventually returned in the fifth movie, leading Wong into a Love Triangle.
    • The same movie also contain another xenophobic organization bent on killing foreigners with martial arts, only being led by women this time.
  • Tag Team: Iron Fist and Duen Tin-lui, two fighters in service of the German villains who wish to overthrow the Manchus.
  • Taking the Bullet:
    • The Jesuit missionary in the first movie, shielding Aunt 13 from incoming bullets fired by Jackson's men.
    • After General Yuenshu shoots Luke, Luke throws himself in front of Wong and Foon so that all the General's remaining shots strike a man already mortally wounded instead of the others.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: "To Be A Hero" plays whenever Wong Fei-hung on the forces of evil in said-movie-series. Averted during the Curb-Stomp Battle of the sixth film, where Wong effortlessly took down the Mexican bandit.
  • Token Heroic Orc: The majority of Westerners in the series are portrayed as greedy, imperialistic, and jingoistic. However, the Jesuit priest in the first film is shown to genuinely want to help Wong and the people of China, and Wong cooperates with various Westerners in the second film (including some doctors practicing Western medicine) who aren't bad guys by any means.
  • Training Montage: During the opening credits Wong is training the militia.
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: In the fifth film, Wong helps training the local militia in Canton to defend themselves against pirates, after the local governor fled due to pirate king Cheung Po Tsai's raiding campaigns.
  • Tsundere: Aunt 13 in the later installments.
  • Unwanted Assistance: Most of Wong's problems in the first movie stem from the impulsive actions of the militia he's training, which the authorities invariably blame on their trainer.
  • Unwilling Suspension: Leung Fu gets captured before the first film's climax, and was found hanging in the ship's interiors. He's released in time to assist Fei Hung later on.
  • Vestigial Empire: Throughout the series, the cracks within the Qing China's might is shown with increasingly inefficient bureaucracy and the dwindling authority over their holdings, as the foreign interests gaining more jurisdiction over legal matters within China.
  • Warrior Poet: Wong Fei-hung himself
  • The Wild West: The stage for the sixth movie.
  • Wins by Doing Absolutely Nothing: Master Yim claims to have beaten Wong in the first film because he never showed up to the duel. This despite the fact that Wong never accepted the challenge in the first place, since he couldn't accept any challenges until his present legal difficulties were resolved and he was released from house arrest.
  • World's Best Warrior: Doctor Wong's reputation across 1890's China In-Universe and In Real Life, so much so that his clinic is regularly the target of challengers to that title, such as Master Yim in the first film.
  • Worthless Foreign Degree: The British ambassador declines Wong Fei-hung's offer of medical assistance to the people injured by the White Lotus cultists 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 anesthetics.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The White Lotus members has no problem killing anyone and anything associated with Westernization, including children who were learning at the school. Their female counterparts, the Red Lanterns, are the same.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: The Mexican bandit in the sixth film has some suprisingly decent martial arts skills and uses them against Wong Fei-hung once disarmed of his pistols. In a normal Western, he would pose a formidable challenge to any cowboy or lawman protagonist, but unfortunately for him, he is in a Hong Kong martial arts film, and his opponent is one of the greatest martial artists in Chinese history.
  • Wuxia: The first in a movement of politically-relevant and artistically-respectable martial-arts films.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness:
    • Despite being his best fighter, Chiu Tin-bak of the third film tosses Clubfoot out on the streets after he injures his leg in a battle rather than get him medical aid. After Wong finds him and fixes his leg, he changes sides.
    • In the same film, the Russians kill off Tomanovsky after Wong foils the assassination plot, in order to tie up loose ends and prevent the conspiracy from being exposed.

Alternative Title(s): Once Upon A Time In China 2, Once Upon A Time In China II