There is no being objective in this review. Once Upon a Time in China was the first time I had ever come across Jet Li and well, here I am today. There is no understatement that without first catching this on SBS one night, I would not have learned the need to flip and kick like gravity was for lesser people. I would not see the nobility in virtue and righteousness. I would not see the heroic of cinema and may have otherwised become just another Hollywood zombie.
But enough fan boy gushing. Apart from the seminal nature of the film, what can I really say that might change your mind about seeing this film if you weren’t really inclined to in the first place? If you haven’t gathered already, the sheer grace and athleticism of the martial arts choreography is amazing. Sure, in your head you understand that it’s wirework but your eyes and sense of wonder just tell your head to stop being such a curmudgeon and just enjoy the damn film.
Of course that delicate juggling of your sense of disbelief is only possible through the just simple enjoyable plot and the fun performances of the stars and supporting cast. There is that certain un-PC “get the whities” element of the story but then really its just an immediate recognition of the bad men and the increased despicability of those Chinese that would conspire with them. Just as old spaghetti westerns did not portray mexicans in a particularly favourable light, the simple conflict meant you knew when to shake your fist in outrage and when to cheer at the inevitable triumph.
This is of course balanced by the relationship of Jet Li’s Wong Fei Hong and Rosawand Kwan’s Aunt Yee (though directly translated as Twelfth Aunt). Aunt Yee’s western standpoint acts as counterpoint to Fei Hong’s traditionalist paradigm. It is the tension and care in this relationship that drives not only this film but at least the next two sequels (at which point the two characters are played by different actors). What comes from this is a respect for the benefits both viewpoints offers and a reminder that it is the villainous deeds of the greedy that is the source of the suffering more than any particular philosophy.
There is little else I can really add about Once Upon a Time in China without really just retelling the entire movie (which is a true disservice). See this film – and then follow it up with at least the next sequel – maybe the third. Beyond that…