Once Upon a Time in China (1990) Review

"Once Upon a Time in China" American Theatrical Poster

"Once Upon a Time in China" American Theatrical Poster

Director: Tsui Hark
Writer: Lo Kit Ying, Elsa Tang, Tsui Hark
Cast: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan, Kent Cheng, Yen Shi Kwan, Jacky Cheung, Yuen Fai, Karel Wong, Jonathan Isgar, Yuen Cheung Yan, Hung Yan Yan, Mark King, Lau Shun, Leung Kam Shan, San Sin, Sham Chin Bo, Steve Tartalia, To Wai Wo, Jimmy Wang Yu, Yau Gin Gwok, Anthony Carpio, Bruce Fontaine, Mike Leeder, Wu Ma
Running Time: 128 min.

By James H.

I wonder if Tsui Hark and Jet Li knew that they were setting up one of Hong Kong cinema’s most lucrative franchises when they made “Once Upon a Time in China”. In the six years that followed, five sequels were produced.

There are many things to admire in this film. Jet Li gives what is probably his strongest performance (of the films I have seen) as legendary folk hero Wong Fei-Hung. The directing, editing, costumes, choreography, score, everything is executed with competence, tact and precision. The look and feel of the film is reminiscent of the melodramatic Westerns of Hollywood in the late 1960’s. Even the titled suggests homage to Sergio Leone, one of the most talented directors of the genre.

For the most part, the story is entertaining and interesting. It deals with complex issues of progress, colonization, and tradition. Hark treats this subject well, taking a fair middle ground, presenting both sides of the story.

The only problem with the story is that it is bogged down by too many uninteresting characters. Too much screen time is allotted to goofy sidekicks Buck Teeth So and “Porky” Wing. The humor they bring to the story is, most of the time not needed and/or not very funny.

However, the rest of the film makes up for that. The acting is a genuinely good (I mentioned Jet Li’s performance), everyone holds their own against each other. But when the fists start flying, none of that matters. The fights are, to say the least, spectacular. They are focused, gracefully shot and smoothly edited. The actors move with speed and power. They are a sight to be seen.

“Once Upon a Time in China” is a highly enjoyable film. There’s something for everyone to like here, which unfortunately keeps this film from being a complete success. But aside from that, it is an epic film that will have its own special place among martial arts film.

Footnote: The Columbia/TriStar DVD includes the original 134 minute cut of the film with either Cantonese or Mandarin language tracks with English subtitles, or an English dubbed version which runs only 99 minutes.

James H.’s Rating: 8.5/10

By Vic Nguyen

Tsui Hark directs this film of epic proportions, recounting the Wong Fei-hung legend into his own blend of fast paced martial arts and drama, without dispensing of his patented themes. Mainland martial artists Jet Li is perfectly cast as the martial arts icon; here, Fei-hung must contend with foreigners and corrupted Chinese citizens vying to cripple his homeland with their own evil intentions. Featuring stunning visuals, a stirring heroic theme song, striking performances, and a great amount of wire-fu, Once Upon a Time in China will forever remain an undisputed classic.

Vic Nguyen’s Rating: 10/10

By Andrew

This film has spawned at least five sequels to date, the majority of which have Jet Li playing the central character, the historical Chinese hero Wong Fei Hung (also Wong Fei-Hong). Wong was a physician and a master of a fighting style known as Hung Gar boxing. With trademark flying stunts, the beautiful Rosamund Kwan, and JC Opera brother Yuen Biao, this film has something for everyone. There’s even westerners, some good, and some that are not so good. It has been a little while since I first watched this film, but as I recall there are massive fight sequences every few minutes and “cousin” Yee shows her interest in Wong Fei-Hong. Watch for the ‘ladder fight’ sequence towards the end of the film, it’s quite funny. I also picked up the title theme to this film on a cd of the same name featuring an assortment of HK cinema music- if you like the intro you should look for this CD!

Andrew’s Rating: 9/10

By Yates

Jet Li’s 2nd greatest film (after Shaolin Temple of course). I agree that this is an art house kung fu movie. Tsui Hark is a great director and he truly shines in this movie. This film also benefits from a great supporting cast that includes Yuen Biao and Jacky Cheung(really great in his role as Buck Tooth So). But this film belongs to Jet Li. No martial artist has(or will ever have) his screen presence. And dont forget the utterly amazing final fight sequence with those ladders. I was in awe of that scene the entire time. It is amazing! Of course there is not TOO much martial arts in this film. The film is more along the lines of Peking Opera Blues. See this movie. You owe it to yourself.

Yates’ Rating: 10/10

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