Once Upon a Time in China (1991) Movie Review

Jet Li’s 1990s Hong Kong career had him reprising two parts, Fong Sai-yuk and Wong Fei-hung, in a series of films starring either character. Both are supposed to be real historical figures, although I’m quite sure that like Americans Billy the Kid and Jesse James, both Fong and Wong’s “legends” are somewhat exaggerated. Western films make James and Kid into gunfighters, but I’m sure they were just two cowboys who could shoot straighter than their opponents, or at the very least could stomach the thought of killing another man easier than the other man could stomach the thought of killing them. By the same token, I’m sure both Fong and Wong were what were called “boxers” back in their time, but I doubt if they could take on hundreds of men at once or leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Which leads us to Once Upon a Time in China, the first part in a series of films starring Jet Li as legendary folk hero Wong Fei-hung (in Chinese, the last name is always pronounced/written first), who was something of a medicine man and kung fu teacher during late 19th century China. OUATIC opens with a crawl that tells us China, having lost both Opium Wars against the Western powers (just the British, actually, America had nothing to do with the wars), is now at the mercy of Westerners who wishes to “open up” the formerly closed kingdom to trade and Western influences. The Chinese, of course, doesn’t like being put upon by foreigners, who they call “devils,” and thus conflict ensues.

Wong leads a group of local militia opposed to Westerners who are bullying the Chinese people, something made easy because of Western collusion with local Chinese officials. When a gang of Chinese criminals makes an alliance with an American Trader, they decide getting rid of Wong would be good for business. Wong must fight back, but can he defeat the Westerner’s greatest assets, the guns, with his kung fu?

OUATIC is probably one of the dumbest genre movies I’ve seen in a long while. Thankfully the film was produced in 1991, and Hong Kong films have gotten much better since, with more emphasis on better writing and, well, the inclusion of common sense. I’ve often droned on and on about the lack of common sense in many Hong Kong period martial arts films, but OUATIC really takes the cake. The movie is filled from end to end with plot contrivances that completely mystifies anyone with an IQ higher than 50. (This isn’t to say you can’t understand the plots, but that you can’t understand how the filmmakers came up with something so ridiculous).

As each brain-dead situation unfolds, and characters begin to act in the most absurd manner for the most ludicrous reasons, I couldn’t help but shake my head and wonder just what the hell director Tsui Hark was thinking and why in the world did it take four people to write this piece of drivel?

I could have easily overlooked the simpleton view of “Westerners bad, Chinese good” (I mean after all this is a Chinese production, and I don’t expect anything beyond a myopic view of “the foreigners”) but I simply can’t stand the uninspired action that fills the screen. (What exactly did Hark think he was doing throwing that log back and forth during a fight between Wong and another kung fu master in the rain?) After seeing Wong (Jet Li) fight off a dozen faceless and nameless henchmen the first two or three times, I really do not need to see him do likewise two and three more times.

And why exactly are “American soldiers” in the turn of the century still wearing Union army uniforms, and why is the American character, Tiger, dressed like a bad extra out of a British Victorian-era novel? For that matter, why are the Americans and everyone else carrying musket rifles and musket pistols? Hello! The repeating rifle and the six-shot revolver was introduced to the world in 1865! That’s more than 30 years ago, Mister Hark! (I might have been able to overlook this little historical inaccuracy, except for the fact that Tsui Hark was educated in the West, in America no less, and must have known this was wrong. I can understand foreign countries unable to tell the difference between British and American soldiers, but when an American-educated filmmaker ignores such simple differences between a repeating rifle and a musket ball rifle it smacks of laziness.)

Oh, and did I mention that the filmmakers introduce a main Chinese villain halfway into the movie just so he can take on Jet Li in a long, drawn-out (and completely boring) fight in the end? No? Well I should have, because it’s the most absurd introduction of an absurd character I’ve seen yet. A character by the name if Iron Robe Yim appears out of thin air at the 50-minute mark to challenge Wong to a martial arts duel, and somehow becomes involved with the Chinese villains. I can accept that the man is ambitious and doesn’t see anything wrong with helping slavers for profit, but I’ll be damn if the man is as dumb as a brick!

Yim purports to be someone who wants to make a difference in the world by opening his own school and teaching his “morals” to the people, and yet he beats the living hell out of his student because — get this — one of the Chinese villains holding a gun to a woman tells him, Yim, that his student was trying to rape the woman he (the criminal) is obviously holding hostage! Showing absolutely no ability to think logically, Yim proceeds to beat his student senseless and then lay in wait for Wong in order to prove that he’s “the greatest of all!”

I usually don’t have much trouble swallowing a lot of Tomfoolery and stupidity while watching a Hong Kong martial arts movie. After all, these films make as much sense as men flying around with giant swords or carrying giant maces that look like they can cover the Astrodome’s roof. And yet, when a film is as bad as OUATIC, even I can’t ignore it.

Hark Tsui (director)
CAST: Jet Li …. Wong Fei-hung
Biao Yuen …. Leung Fu
Rosamund Kwan …. Aunt Yee
Steve Tartalia …. Tiger
Jacky Cheung …. Buck Teeth Soh

Buy Once Upon a Time in China on DVD