Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

Tsui Hark directs Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan and Yuen Biao in this historical kung-fu epic where real life Martial Arts master Wong Fei-Hung is embroiled in a conspiracy between American and British colonial interests, a local gang and a corrupt governor.

Natalie and I have set ourselves a mini-project of watching an epic “Once a Upon a Time in…” movie every Sunday. Don’t worry we aren’t going to beat ourselves up with phony cockney gangster flicks or this particular franchises later sequels. West, America, Mexico and Hollywood are on the docket though. This was my first revisit of Jet Li’s Hong Kong highlight since watching it in my good, good mate Davey’s boxroom in Marchmont years ago. That viewing was no doubt fuelled by a crate of Tennents tinnies and too much takeaway Chinese food. But I do remember it took me a while to get my bearings with who was who. That same slightly lost feeling niggled at me during the first act again. Obviously I know who Jet Li is, and the broad comic relief clowns are easy to separate and identify (although often extraneous and distracting to the plot). But we are introduced to a glut of characters… many of whom have the same severe haircut and dowdy dress… with little idea of their significance to the overall plot. A cowboy adventure would introduce the good and the bad gunslingers in black and white – that coding exists to ease the viewer in whatever their nationality… Hong Kong cinema gives western eyes no such gentle assimilation. By the midway point you know the hapless, slightly misguided Foon (Yuen Biao) is our actual protagonist. He motors the plot, gets involved in a human way and flirts with gorgeous “13th Aunt”. He may be clumsy and find trouble way too easily but he is the narrative’s hero in the most traditional genre cinema sense, and a pleasurable one. Jet Li is left to be unimpeachably worthy while he takes part in epic subplot side fights with rival masters and surprise assassins. These are visually wondrous. The whole film is a joy of production design and the scope and scale of it consistently impressive. The opening credits is a martial arts workout on a beach that is truly iconic, the finale involves ladders and explosions in a way that has never been matched. There is stuff that is awkwardly distasteful to us honkies in 2020. The threat of rape is a little too explicit and drawn out for a family friendly blockbuster, the stereotypical humour at the expense of outsiders is racist in even a 1970s Carry-On sense of the issues. I guess in kung-fu cinema we gwailou are just going to have to accept we’ll be the cucks at the orgy. Overall this is a very enjoyable afternoon of period thrills.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

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