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With: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan, Jacky Cheung
Written by: Leung Yiu Ming, Tang Pik-yin, Tsui Hark, Yun Kai-Chi
Directed by: Tsui Hark
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Language: Cantonese with English subtitles
Running Time: 134
Date: 08/15/1991

Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Believing in Jet's Reign

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Following a retrospective of director/producer Tsui Hark's work at New York City's Film Forum, three of his films happily pop up here in the Bay Area. His amazing new film Time and Tide opens next week, while Once Upon a Time in China and Once Upon a Time in China II open this week at the Lumiere. Now people who loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will be able to see for themselves what a real Hong Kong film is all about.

Though Once Upon a Time in China (1991) is, on the whole, probably not Tsui's finest hour -- that honor belongs to either Peking Opera Blues or Swordsman II -- it does contain some of his very best work. Set in 1875, the film tells the story of a China pulled in various directions. Many Chinese were beginning to be attracted by the promise of wealth in America, and China itself was being overrun by foreigners, threatening to dilute centuries of Chinese culture. In one scene, an army of white priests parades down the street singing "Hallelujah," drowning out a local Chinese band performing at a café.

Into this atmosphere comes Hong Kong folk legend Wong Fei-hung (played by Li), roughly the Chinese equivalent of Davy Crockett. (Jackie Chan also plays Wong Fei-hung in his excellent Drunken Master films.) Wong runs his own martial arts school with his Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan), a widow about Wong's age to whom he is related only by marriage (hint, hint). Challenged on all sides by corrupt government officials, a renegade swordsman and an illegal slave ring, Wong at first tries to do the right thing by not fighting, resulting in a rather confusing and slow-moving first half. But when the last straw finally comes, Wong's comic sidekicks gleefully ask him, "Can we really fight now?" And we're just as excited as they are when the answer is "Yes."

The second half of the film makes Crouching Tiger look like Wuthering Heights. Unlike a gifted actor like Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li relies mainly on raw screen presence and poetic movement. As Wong, Li easily takes on dozens of lesser opponents at once, defeating a group of them with an umbrella, even opening it to deflect boiling water. But the real thrill comes at the climax, when he fights a single, deadly opponent as powerful as he. The fight takes place in a warehouse full of ladders, crossbeams, catwalks and large, throwable bundles, and the combatants make use of every square inch. Tsui's camera lurches, pinwheels and whirligigs all over the place to catch every move perfectly. Tsui was smart enough to craft his film as an observant period piece, but also smart enough not to let the kung-fu go soft as a result. This is spectacular work.

I saw Once Upon a Time in China years ago at the Castro, and I can say that this new print is a 100 percent improvement. It not only restores the film to its full 135-minute length, it provides fresh new English subtitles instead of the fractured ones Hong Kong pictures are famous for. It's nice to see such a great, wild film treated with the same respect as a gauzy Miramax release.

Once Upon a Time in China (1991) plays today through Monday. Then Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), which I have not seen, completes the week, playing Tuesday through Thursday. Columbia Tri/Star has released the first three films in the Once Upon a Time in China series in a very good, affordable two-disc set.

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