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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 their fathers are sworn 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 - 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-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 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 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.

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-hung twice more in the embarrassing slapstick In Name Only "sequel" Once Upon A 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.

Once Upon a Time in China 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 dying 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 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 6 years total and thus the actors barely age, yet it touches on historical events decades apart from one another.
  • Anti-Villain: Master Yen Jer Dong of Movie 1 and General Nap-lan Yun-Suet of Movie 2.
    • The Russians in the third movie want to assassinate the Chinese Prime Minister, but only because they believe that doing so will avert a war.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: In the first movie, 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 Sha-Her gang, with their leader released because nobody would testify against him, commit another atrocity, and the missionary steps forward and provides an answer: "I will be your witness."
  • Bat Deduction: In III, Wong Fei-Hung reads a letter that tells him the Chinese Prime Minister 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 Yen.
  • Berserk Button: Hurting innocents - especially his loved ones - is not something Wong will tolerate well.
  • Big-Bad Ensemble:
    • In II, High Priest Kung of the White Lotus Society and General Nap-lan Yun-Suet. 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 ia a Corrupt Corporate Executive and gangster who terrorises the Wong family and seeks to win the Lion Dance tournament through bullying the competition, but much more serious is Tomansky who is plotting to use the tournament as a cover to carry out an assassination.
  • Bottomless Magazines: People with guns have a ridiculous rate of fire for 19th century firearms.
  • Bully Hunter: Doctor Wong is feared by the villains of Canton for being this trope; and in the first film single handedly takes down the Shar Her Gang terrorizing the boss of a Tea House for protection money.
  • 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 movie 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 "Once Upon A 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 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Culture Clash: This happens occasionally with Wong and Aunt 13.
  • 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 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 2, where Fei Hung and Yuan-Shu were nearly equal in skill.
  • Damsel in Distress: Aunt 13, as the sole main woman in the cast, frequently becomes kidnapped or placed in danger.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Eloquent in My Native Tongue: Inverted Trope for Buck-Tooth-Soo, 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.
  • 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.
  • Enemy Mine: General Nar-Lan Yuen-Shu cooperates with the White Lotus Society criminals to have an excuse to enter the Western compound where Sun Wen is offering his services after they storm the place, so that he can root out the revolutionary.
  • Evil Colonialist: Almost all Westerners.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: After Wong Fei Hung exposes and shuts down the slave trading ring at the end of the first movie, the official who's been harassing him all 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 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 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 Sha-Her gang and Taking the Bullet for him when the American Big Bad tries to have him 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: "Club Foot" Qi goes from gang enforcer to one of the heroes in true Androcles' Lion fashion.
  • 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 Villain Upgrade: 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Inferiority Superiority Complex: Master Yim 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 Lian Quan in particular is fond of this.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: The finale between Yim and Wong had members from Shaho Gang who prepared to open fire until they were discovered when one of them accidentally shot his comrades when he bring his gun pointed to him on how to use it.
  • 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: 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 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*
  • Leitmotif: As of this movie, "A Man of Determination" has become Wong Fei-Hung's official battle theme.
  • 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-Her 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.
  • No Kill Like Overkill: Master Yim gets shot to death by American troops (who didn't realise 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.
  • 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, wherever it may come from.
  • 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.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Inverted. Porky decided that under heavy, stylisized make-up and in professional costume no one will recognize him, so he will be able to pass as an absent actor. The moment he enters the stage, half of the audience instantly 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.
  • Play-Along Prisoner: 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 Sha-Her gang's human trafficking ring, he decides that this is a serious enough reason to justify breaking out, and leaves.
  • Pocket Protector: The pocket watch that Sun gave Lian Quan saved his life when he was shot by a bullet in the second film. Luke lampshaded this. Sadly averted in the next second where 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 movie, 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.
  • Pressure Point: As a doctor versed in Chinese Medicine, Master Wong is also a master of acupuncture, 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.
  • Say My Name: Wong calls Aunt 13 by her real name in the second film when they have to part ways to survive.
  • Serious Business: Lion dancing in the third film.
  • 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; Yen Jer Dong'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 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.
  • 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.
  • Stop Helping Me!: 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.
  • Taking the Bullet: After General Yuenshi shoots Luk, Luk 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 takes on the forces of evil in said-movie-series.
  • Token Heroic Orc: The majority of Westerners in the first film are portrayed as greedy, imperialistic, and jingoistic. However, the European priest in the first movie is shown to genuinely want to help Wong and the people of China, and Wong cooperates with various Westerners in the second movie (including some doctors) who aren't bad guys by any means.
  • Training Montage: During the opening credits Wong is training the militia.
  • Tsundere: Aunt 13 in the later installments.
  • Vestigial Empire: Throughout the film, the cracks within the Qing China's might was 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
  • The Wild West: The stage for the sixth movie.
  • Wins by Doing Absolutely Nothing: Master Yen claims to have beaten Wong in the first movie because he never showed up to the duel. This despite the fact that not only had Wong never accepted the challenge in the first place, he had openly stated that he couldn't accept any challenges until his present legal difficulties were resolved, as he was under 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 Yen Jer Dong 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 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.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The White Lotus members had no problem killing anyone and anything associated with Westernization, including children who were learning at the school.
  • 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, the villain 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.
  • You Look Familiar: Donnie Yen plays Wong Fei-Hung's father Wong Kei-Ying in Iron Monkey, a film about a young Wong Fei-Hung. 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.

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


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