Monday, 30 December 2013

Once Upon A Time in China (1991)

There are sometimes movies that get widely talked about and hyped, and that you want to see, but you somehow never do. This is one such film for me. I've been aware of its existence since the mid-90s, and have always intended to check it out, but for whatever reason I never did. Even when I bought it on DVD, some number of years ago (I'm not sure how many, but at least three), it sat unwatched on my shelf all this time. If I'm being honest, the fact that it was a more than two hour movie in another language was a factor. I prefer to watch foreign language movies with subtitles, rather than dubbed, but that does have the drawback of requiring me to really focus on the screen. If a movie is in English, I can text friends, tweet rude comments about the film, go grab a drink, or otherwise allow myself to glance away from the screen without pausing the film. Not so, here.

The movie revolves around celebrated folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, who like Sherlock Holmes in the west, has had many many movies made about him, starring many different actors. In this film, Master Wong must deal with arrogant westerners, local bandits, and government officials who are more interested in keeping the powerful foreigners happy than in doing what is right. It's interesting to see a film in which Americans are the black-hearted villains, as they are in this case. They're working with equally black-hearted Chinese, it's true, but the Americans are the ones in charge. The British, as the only other foreigners depicted, as shown as pompous and ineffectual, but not actually malevolent. I am reminded that this was, after all, made in the final decade of British rule in Hong Kong.

The film is widely regarded as a classic example of wire fu action, and it is easy to see why. The climactic battle between Jet Li's character and his principal Chinese adversary is pretty epic. One has to accept the exaggerated athleticism and stuntwork intrinsic to the form, of course, but that's par for the course. It's still very easy to admire for its choreography.

So it's a good martial arts film, but it's also not a film without flaws. It does take a very long time to really get moving, and we're 'treated' to lots of diversions into slapstick humour along the way. Quite possibly, this is a cultural thing where such elements are considered perfectly normal to a Chinese audience, but they fell flat for me. There's also an extended attempted rape sequence later in the movie, which felt like it was being lingered on in a rather unpleasant manner.

I'd have liked this better if it was about 30 minutes shorter (as the sequels are, I note), but if you've a hankering for some wire fu martial arts action, you could do a lot worse than catch the last hour of this.

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