Spike’s Classics: Once Upon A Time In China 1 and 2

Once Upon A Time In China

Theme of Wong Fei Hung

Wong Fei Hung was born in 1847 and his century spanning life would earn him a place in the Chinese national identity as well as immortality in the hearts and minds of all fans of Kung Fu cinema. Fictional versions of Wong Fei Hung have appeared in over a hundred movies including undisputed classics such as Drunken Master, The Magnificent Butcher, Iron Monkey and of course Last Hero in China. But the standout Wong Fei Hung films are Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China Series.

Tellingly these films are simply known as Wong Fei Hung in China and that is fitting as the series probably offers what can only be viewed as the definitive fictional Wong Fei Hung experience.

Starting off with a lion dance which is saved from ruin by Fei Hung the pace of the film is stately. While there is a wealth of spectacular fight scenes a lot of the films two and a bit hour running time is given over to character moments.

Jet Li, just returning from a disastrous first attempt at cracking the overseas market, was something of a strange choice for the major role of Fei Hung. But the three time Wushu champion proved that the gamble was one of Tsui Hark’s wisest moves as he personified the role completely.

Indeed even if it weren’t for Li’s incredible prowess as a martial artist he would have still seemed a natural choice given how much raw charisma and charm he gave to a character who often was played a little too harsh. He gave Fei Hung the discipline and conviction he needed without the austere edge some of his predecessors had given the role and ultimately created a character that had a wonderful vibrancy and humanity.

The plot of Once Upon A Time in China is rather simple and yet very rewarding. China has effectively been invaded by westerners who have been granted immunity by the government. As China slowly becomes more westernised Wong Fei Hung finds himself increasingly powerless against the guns of the new visitors. Kung Fu is no match for bullets and old masters are reduced to performing in the streets for scraps.

Aside from a plot involving slave trading and a vicious gang the story is centred almost entirely around the conflict between new and old, and later the conflict between Wong Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim (a stately and masterful performance from Yee Kwan Yan).

Fei Hung is joined by a cadre of supporters who are probably the film’s weakest elements. The two members of his school the film focuses on Butcher Wing and Buck Tooth So while adding something to the narrative, So propelling the narrative Wing demonstrating Fei Hung’s respect amongst his students, seem underdeveloped.

The third most interesting character of the film is Foon (played by underappreciated martial arts legend Yuen Biao) an actor who finds himself in the service of Iron Robe Yim even though his respect lies with Fei Hung and his heart with Fei Hung’s 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan).

Speaking of 13th Aunt while on first appraisal I found her character to be a little shoe horned in to provide Fei Hung with the hint of a romance I have grown to like her character more in recent viewings. She effectively serves as another counterpoint between Fei Hung and modern china and her scene with Fei Hung help to bring a touch of humanity to a character who can be hard to sympathise with.

The film is beautiful to look at with handsome cinematography, incredible sets, and some expertly staged fights. In fact Once Upon A Time In China has two of my favourite celluloid fights. The two encounters between Fei Hung and Yim are incredible works of choreography and showcase the aesthetic sensibility that makes Tsui Hark one of my favourite directors.

The first fight shot in the pouring rain is just a fantastical exchange of blows between the two masters. It is a stunning piece of filmwork and even the more unbelievable elements are granted a grounding in reality simply due to the intensity and emotion of the battle.

The second battle is much more of a showy piece and is essentially one protracted duel, with a small intermission in the middle, which uses ladders to take the fight vertically as well as horizontally. The fight is again awe inspiring to watch, the perfect combination of natural psychical prowess and newer wire methods.

But what makes Once Upon A Time in China so special are not the fights but the way the characters are handled. Despite taking a role as antagonist Iron Robe Yim is a very sympathetic character, an honourable man driven to desperation when his masterful skills become outdated.

Once Upon A Time In China 2

Once Upon A Time in China was an incredible movie, mixing interesting human characters (played by Kung Fu legends) with wondrous cinematography and incredible fight choreography. How do you follow up such a film? Apparently you enlist Wushu wonderkid Donnie Yen and master action director Yuen Woo Ping and combine with a plot that has dashes of Temple of Doom.

Once Upon a Time In China 2 opens in the bowels of a temple as a young girl chants the chorus of the White Lotus group. The White Lotus is a fanatically xenophobic sect who follows their leader on a brutal purge of all western influences. We are introduced to the leader right at the start of the film as he and his followers eat fire, roll around in fire, and take gunshots to the chest.

While it’s easy to assume at this point that the temple leader is going to be another shade of grey villain in a series that is fervently nationalistic it becomes quickly clear that the White Lotus are just straight villains, a fact proved within minutes when a Dalmatian is ordered to be immolated for the simple crime of being western.

While there are a few moments of symmetry between Fei Hung and the White Lotus group, the famous Wong Fei Hung theme actually fades in and uses the same basic beat as the White Lotus group’s theme, it is apparent that The White Lotus group are inherently villainous.

The main plot structure is once again fairly simple. Wong Fei Hung, 13th Aunt and new apprentice Foon (no longer played by Yuen Biao despite the character actually having things to do this time round) arrive in Canton to attend a medical seminar and attract the unwanted attention of the White Lotus group during a march. Despite his efforts to not get involved Fei Hung finds himself drawn into the conflict and ultimately galvanised to act after witnessing a massacre at a school for learning foreign languages.

While the central plot is relatively straightforward the secondary plot involving General Lan’s (Donnie Yen) plot to find and detain a duo of revolutionaries seems to be added to just give the film a second climactic fight. In fact the second plot’s relation to the main film is quite suspect in that it seems entirely separate from everything else that is happening, barring perhaps a few scenes involving the revolutionaries.

While the secondary plot does seem somewhat shoehorned in it does allow for the inclusion of two of the finest fights in the film, and perhaps in the series. The two encounters between Fei Hung and Lan are both explosive and precise showcasing the raw energy and charisma that both stars have. In fact the climactic battle while lacking the sheer poetry of the ladder fight from its predecessor is a raw and visceral experience which has its own fair share of tricks. While at times it seemed that Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim were merely sparring with each other the fatal intent in the Lan/Fei Hung duels is never less than clear.

Yuen Woo Ping does a fine job in crafting fights which are both intricate and heavy hitting. In fact the penultimate duel handled by anyone else could have been a mess of wire fu antics. But in Yuen Woo Ping’s hand the rather esoteric fight in which Fei Hung and the White Lotus leader battle for dominance of a series of impromptu altars is granted a near poetic feel. While it transcends the barriers of believability there is something awe inspiring about the sheer ingenuity to create the fight using little more than practical effects and two able martial artists.

Despite some seriously impressive fight choreography where Once Upon A Time In China 2 shines is in Tsui Hark’s desire to experiment as a filmmaker. While he has always been good at conveying grandeur and emotion in this film he starts to experiment with ideas not seen before in his movies. The most noticeable thing is the montage sequence that takes place near the end of the first act which demonstrates the White Lotus attacks throughout the city. However there are other things which are refreshingly different such as Aunt Yee’s shadow dancing during a training session, the way the camera moves instead of keeping the stately but stoic stance of the previous film, and the use of unnatural lighting (such as in the temple scenes at the end).

In the end Once Upon A Time in China 2 is probably a far more accessible film than its predecessor simply because the line between good and evil is more distinct. The foreigners are still an effete bunch of ne’er-do-wells but the bad guys are definitely evil and lack any of the sympathy Iron Robe Yim was given. The movie is good fun, has an interesting plot, some incredible action scenes, and a good dose of humour (probably the best integrated in all the series). The only problem for me lies with the fact that Fei Hung is given a harsher and gruffer persona than he was in Once Upon A Time In China and at times the master seems almost petulant.

In many ways it surpasses the original and is far more inventive but a lack of emotional resonance in the conflict means that Once Upon A Time In China 2 is a smidgen less than its prequels equal.

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