It has been over ten years since I’ve seen Once Upon a Time in China. I used to own it on VHS video tape but I sold all my video tapes when I moved to the UK. I recently found a very good deal on the trilogy box set by the Hong Kong Legends distributors. There are more recent box sets and even a Blu-ray however they are only available for North America. I’m pleased with the boxset as it offers the original Cantonese audio track as well as the English Dub. So for me this was the first time I got to watch the film with the original language.
Once Upon a Time in China is fairly long for a martial arts film at 134 minutes. I think Director Tsui Hark did a fine job balancing the story and action to keep the film from feeling dragged out. When the movie came out there was not much interest in Martial Arts, Wuxia, or historical films and Once Upon a Time in China is credited as starting the trend that led to so many wonderful 90s movies. The film won many awards including Best Director and Best Action Choreography. The story is about the legendary folk hero Wong Fei Hung (1847-1924) who runs a traditional medical clinic in Foshan, China. The film deals with the growing concern of foreign influences, the degradation of the Chinese government, as well as problems with the locals. One of those is Master Yim Chun Tung who has come from the North to set up a school in Foshan and challenges anyone to make a name for himself. Sound familiar? It should for anyone who has watched Ip Man. The character Kam Shan-chu (played by Fan Siu-wong) pretty much played the identical role.
This film is a classic! The acting is very well done, the sets and Chinese costumes are great, the western costumes are not late 1800s but look more like late 1700s. At least for ‘Tiger’ played by Steve Tartalia. Jet Li’s career certainly took off after this film. Before Once Upon a Time in China Li was staring in one movie a year, after though he was in 2-5 films a year throughout the 90s. Yuen Biao was a great addition as Foon. They really put his acrobatics to good use. Rosamund Kwan is best known for her role as Aunt 13/Aunt Yee in 1-3 and Once Upon a Time in China and America. She was also in Once Upon a Time in China V but not as Aunt 13. The action is awesome, but I expect nothing less from Lau Kar-Wing! The final battle with Master Yim Chun Tung is one I will never forget.
Tsui Hark, Director, producer
Lau Kar-Wing, Action Director
Yuen Shun-Yi, Action Director
Yuen Cheung-Yan, Action Director
Jet Li Lian-Jie (Once Upon a Time in China II, Swordsman 2, Fong Sai Yuk, Fearless, League of Gods) as Wong Fei Hung
Yuen Biao (Fist of Fury, Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain, The Iceman Cometh, Hero) as Leung Foon
Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau (Swordsman, A Chinese Ghost Story III, Ashes of Time, Bodyguards and Assassins) as Buck Teeth So
Rosamund Kwan Chi-Lam (Once Upon a Time in China 1-3, Swordsman 2, The Assassin, The Scripture with No Words) as Aunt 13
Kent Cheng Jak-Si (The Kung Fu Scholar, Ip Man 2, Ip Man 3) as Porky Wing
Yuen Gam-Fai (Royal Tramp, King of Beggars, Iron Monkey) as Ling Wan Kai
Yen Shi-Kwan (Prodigal Boxer, The Fearless Hyena, Swordsman 2, Dragon Inn, Iron Monkey) as Iron Robe Yim Chun Tung
Lau Shun (Swordsman, A Chinese Ghost Story II, Dragon Inn, The Tai-Chi Master, The Legend of Zu) as Naval Commander Lau (cameo)
Wu Ma (Kung-Fu of Eight Drunkards, Mr. Vampire, 14 Blades, Swordsman) as Granduncle Chueng (cameo)
Yau Gin-Gwok (The South Shaolin Master I & II) as Shaho gang leader
Karel Wong Chi-Yeung as Governor
Jonathan Isgar (Mr. Nice Guy, Armour of God 2: Operation Condor) as Mr Jackson
Mark King (The Legend of Drunken Master, Armour of God 2: Operation Condor, A Better Tomorrow II) as British General Wickens
Steve Tartalia (Armour of God 2: Operation Condor, The Legend of Zorro) as Tiger
Colin George (Poldark (1975 TV Series)) as Jesuit priest
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- Lau Kar-Wing is a direct descendant (master-wise) of the legendary Wong Fei Hung. Wong Fei Hung was Lam Sai Wing’s master, and Lam Sai Wing in turn was Lau Jan’s master. Lau Jan is Liu Chia Liang (Lau Kar Leung)’s father and master.
- Rosamund Kwan and Jet Li starred in six movies together during the 90s