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E (1991)
Once Upon a Time in China

Reviewed by: STSH
Date: 10/30/2010

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: dandan
Date: 04/02/2009
Summary: i'll wear western clothes when the rest of china does...

it is the late nineteenth century and china is in transition, although this is a far from smooth process; foreign powers are investing and exploiting in equal measure, whilst the chinese are either reluctant to accept change, are trying to make money from it or embracing a new era. in the middle of all this is wong fei-hung (jet li), a physician, martial artist, head of the local militia and folk hero, in waiting...

'once upon a time in china' is an undeniable classic, one of the finest moments in the careers of its star, jet li, its director, tsui hark, and of hong kong cinema. the narrative and characters are both rich, and a little complex at times, reflecting the china in which the film is set. one one hand we have wong fei-hung, a busy man as previously noted, but he a man who is struggling with his thoughts on the effects that these times are having on his country and the little people who are simply trying to live their lives. we have the likes of porky (kent cheng) a member of the local militia, who is brash and thinks only in terms of the present. there is leung fu (yuen bioa) who wants to better himself and wants to become a student of wong fei-hung, but finds himself getting caught up with the goings on around him. then, on the other hand, there's aunt thirteen, who has embraced the west after traveling, and an american born chinese, bucktooth so (jacky cheung), who has learned about western medicine, but traveled to china to learn bone setting. if i had the time and the inclination, i suppose i could write something about how every character in the film represented an aspect of this period in history, but i shalln't...

beyond this, the film is an entertaining and comic affair, although i'm sure i didn't give that impression in the last paragraph. then, or course, there's the action. jet li is in quite sparkling form and the fight sequences, be they aerial one-on-one battles or group brawls, are never less than very entertaining. when i spied that they were showing a bunch of hong kong classics at this year's hkiff, although disappointed to miss seeing a better tomorrow' on the big screen in hong kong, i eagerly snapped up ticket for this and thoroughly enjoyed watching it once again.

great stuff...

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 11/01/2005

Jet Li stars as Wong Fei-Hung, a doctor whose knowledge of kung-fu and dedication to the "little people" made him into a folk hero in China. The film takes place during the tumultuous times before the Chinese revolution in 1918, where an influx of foreign powers was beginning to split the Chinese into factions. Some want to embrace the newcomers, while others want to push them away and keep China "pure" -- some just want to make as much money as they can. Wong finds himself caught in the middle between greedy foreigners, corrupt officials and naïve countrymen. As head of the local militia, Wong must decide what side to align himself with in order to keep China safe.

My little plot summary doesn't really do this film justice. It is quite a complex plot and trying to boil it down to a couple of sentences is next to impossible. In fact, the plot is so complex that those people who don't have some knowledge of Chinese history will probably be lost (think how someone watching a film about Paul Revere might feel if they didn't know about US history). But the script is solid enough so that the film doesn't become too complex as to lose the viewer.

At its heart, though, what propels OUATIC are the action sequences. Suffice to say Jet Li has never looked better -- literally. Of course, his martial arts skills are great and he's convincing as a kung-fu master. The fights in OUATIC, which range from brawls between dozens of people to intense, high-flying one-on-one battles, are expertly choreographed and performed. But -- perhaps more importantly -- director Tsui Hark, one of the most powerful people in the HK film industry, spared no expense on this film (at least in terms of the Hong Kong film industry, where budgets are miniscule compared to Hollywood's). It simply looks better than most any other HK kung-fu film before or since, even newer special-effects laden movies like The Stormriders. OUATIC's camera and editing techniques in particular are phenomenal and play a vital role in separating this film from others of this kind. Even the burly Kent Cheng (who plays Porky, one of Wong's students) looks like a kung-fu powerhouse in front of Tsui's lens.

The other members of the cast, including Jacky Cheung (as a Chinese/American doctor named So) and Yuen Biao (as Fong, an acrobatic actor who turns against Wong) put in good performances as well. It's a pretty rare occurrence when an ensemble cast could perform within a martial arts movie, but Tsui manages to put a good balance between all the characters, so none of them seem superfluous or unnecessary. Also, it was really nice seeing a romantic subplot in a movie that didn't overpower the scenes around it. The scenes with Wong and Aunt Yee (Kwan) are actually handled with tenderness and care, unlike the hammy melodrama present in most other films.

Once Upon a Time in China is simply one of the best martial arts films ever made. If you haven't seen it, you're missing out on a special treat that showcases some of Tsui Hark and Jet Li's best work.

[review from www.hkfilm.net]

Reviewed by: Gaijin84
Date: 08/04/2005
Summary: Classic Tsui Hark...

Jet Li takes his first shot at the role of the legendary Wong Fei-hung in Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China. Fei-hung, who runs a medical clinic, martial arts school and the Local Fa Shan Militia, is given the task of looking after his Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) after she arrives back from a trip to America. A gang from the Shah Ho province has been extorting money from local merchants, and when they go after Leung Foon (Yuen Biao), a local actor, they end up tangling with the Militia, led by one of his star pupils, Lam Sai-wing (Ken Cheng). The gang becomes a problem later in the movie as well when they manage to convince some sleazy American traders that Fei-hung and his men are the sole obstacle in setting up a lucrative prostitution exporting scheme. After an attempt on Fei-hung's life at a theater event, local townsfolk are killed, and the Militia is framed for the crime. Meanwhile, Leung Foon has become the pupil of a down-and-out martial arts expert Master Yim, who decides to become head of the Shah Ho gang and challenge Fei-hung for the control of the Fa Shan province. When the gang captures Aunt Yee and plans to ship her off to be a prostitute in America, Fei-hung must single-handedly take on Master Yim, the Shah Ho thugs and the ruthless American traders.

Once Upon a Time in China is an immensely entertaining film, very well directed by Tsui Hark, featuring good performances and incredible fight scenes. The film not only has an interesting main story, but a very good sub-plot involving Fei-hung's (and China's as a whole) acceptance of the Western influence from traders and missionaries. Unfortunately, there are almost no sympathetic Western characters in the film, most of them being pretty bad stereotypes of loud and rude Americans. Wong Fei-hung is a very popular folk hero in Hong Kong, so his dealings with the West is interesting in that is probably represented the public feeling at the time the film was made in 1991. Although it's slow at some points and feels quite long, Once Upon a Time in China is a fascinating film not only for its action and directing, but its view into the Chinese psyche surrounding change and Western influence.

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: pjshimmer
Date: 07/10/2005
Summary: Filmed to perfection

There's a lot I can say about this classic Chinese language film. It was once upon a time my favorite movie of all time. I saw it from a broader perspective than with previous martial arts films, because OUATIC truly transcends the genre with so much to offer, and that is why HK Film Awards honored Tsui Hark as Best Director of the year. Bottom Line: if you only love kung fu movies for kung fu, then perhaps look elsewhere; but if you love cinema, then you are obligated to experience the unforgettable cinematic perfection that is Once Upon a Time in China.


Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: Arshadnm6
Date: 04/13/2005
Summary: Stretched piece of History, too much drama.....

China is in turmoil, with western influence destroying China’s long cultural history. Wong Fei-Hong (Jet Li from ‘Hitman’ and ‘Fist of Legend’) opposes foreigner’s intentions on smuggling Chinese workers to build railroads in America under the guise of earning a fortune for their troubles. Meanwhile, a group of foreigners join a local faction of troublesome Chinese and frame Wong Fei-Hong’s local militia for a carrying out a serious of local terrorist acts. Leung Fu (Yuen Biao from ‘Project A’ and ‘Winners and Sinners’), a member of the troublesome Chinese tearaways, is attracted to Wong Fei-Hong’s Auntie, Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan from ‘Dr. Wai in the Scripture with no Words’). Leung Fu enlists with Master Yim (Yen Shi-Kwan), who wants to challenge and overtake Wong Fei-Hong’s high status as the best martial arts master around. To achieve fame and wealth, Master Yim joins with the troublesome Chinese who are out to also destroy Wong Fei-Hong for their personal disagreements with him. Eventually, all of the parties join up and make a contract with the foreigners to illegally smuggle Chinese women to America. Aunt Yee is kidnapped as part of the plot and to be shipped to America, and Leung Fu patriotically objects. Eventually, Leung Fu and Wong Fei-Hong agree to join forces to save Aunt Yee and come to terms with the reality of the persisting foreign presence in China for the future.

This movie is too long (over two hours) with a huge cast list and sets up the upcoming barrage of follow-ups in this series. However, the main actors are given plenty of time to form realistic characters with the screen time invested in them, which sets the scene for the following sequels. Furthermore, the action is sparsely based throughout the feature and is not very inspired as it comes from largely unknown group of action choreographers Yuen Cheung-Yan, Yuen Sun-Yi and Lau Kar-Wing. Although, this movie was one of the first few high-budget movies offered to Jet Li in a major role it clearly shows his inexperience in taking the lead. Furthermore, Yuen Biao’s presence is refreshing and badly needed but his over-acting overshadows Jet Li in some area (and it clearly shows!) and there is evident friction between the pair as they are always individually trying to dominate the screen. This confrontation may explain the absence of Yuen Biao in further sequels of the ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ series and for his substitution by a more comical and lower-rated Max Mok Siu-Chung.

Furthermore, the setting, atmosphere and choice of locations are authentically recreated by the movie. Moreover, the villains never carry any emotion or sense of regret except for Yen Shi-Kwan, who acts as a humble but trapped pawn in this game of power. The final showdown is also very entertaining and original. This historical old-style epic is well done and focuses on storyline and plot over the action element. However, the feature does not contain any twists to interweave with the web of subplots created within the storyline. At times, the focus of the movie is obscure and this feeling dominates throughout the movie until the finale becomes inevitable to draw a close to things.

Overall, Tsui Hark has directed a wonderful spectacle of its time and set the scene for many new adventures to come. However, this movie fails to make any deep impact and focuses more on establishing a firm ground for future productions rather than concentrating on the movie at hand. A true waste to say the least!

Overall Rating: 7.1/10

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: SteelwireMantis
Date: 08/22/2003
Summary: Jet Li's finest performance! A CLASSIC!!!

Jet Li portrays late legendary kung-fu master Wong Fei-Hung in Tsui Hark's classic masterpiece of the early 90's heading a star-studded cast to support him.

Wong Fei-Hung (Li) is a close friend of Commander Lau of the Black Flag army - a rebel against the 'unjust treaties' who travels to Vietnam to fight the French. Leaving his men behind, Wong vows to teach them and form a Militia to protect Fushan. Leung Foon (Yuen Biao) is a theatre actor with poor kung-fu skills and has landed in trouble with thugs from Shaho (lead by Yau Gin Gwok). He has fallen for 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan) and lands the Local Militia into trouble by having them arrested in a fight between the Militia and the thugs in a 'Forbidden Area'. Wong Fei-Hung has no choice but to capture the thugs and save his clinic Po Chi Lam. Things get worse for him as a Kung-Fu master Yim (Yen Shi-Kwan) wants to challenge him and open a Kung-Fu school in Fatshan. Leung Foon, Wong and Porky Wing (Kent Cheng) have no choice but to ambush the American territory and save innocent women from being shipped as hookers (as 13th Aunt is one of them).

This is a classic piece of cinema. It has everything a film expert could ask for; intriguing plot, beautiful cinematography, gripping performances, breath-taking kung-fu and excellent direction by Tsui Hark. This film makes up for the disappointing 'Master' as it is a way better movie. Jet Li gives one of the finest performances as Wong Fei-Hung (on the level of experienced Kwan Tak Hing), Yuen Biao is entertaining as Leung Foon yet he was replaced by Mok Siu Chung in the sequels. This is by far the best movie that Jet Li has made (yet his best KUNG-FU movie was 'Fist of Legend'). But this film has beauty, heart, soul, tension and just pure sheer class.

Acclaimed by critics worldwide, 'Once Upon a Time in China' should not be missed by any film buffs! Let alone HK Cinema fans.


Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: rzach
Date: 11/22/2002
Summary: Master Piece of the Decade


Reviewed by: balstino
Date: 07/29/2002
Summary: Seriously good. Buy it.

I think Jet Li is a bad actor. His martial arts skill is impressive, but I don't like his films.

However, Once upon a time in China is an excellent and affecting film. The fight scenes are varied and fantastic and Jet Li's performance is very good. This is one of best martial arts films I have seen so far,and therefore is highly recommended.

Reviewed by: Inner Strength
Date: 03/12/2002
Summary: CLASSIC

If they had not made any sequels, especially 5 more, then this should have been branded the best ever HK movie.

A story about the Chinese hero Wong Fei Hung played pretty well by Jet Li. The other reviewers don't seem to pleased with this, but it's great. Finally a good martial arts movie with a good plot. So many movies had been made about Wong Fei Hung, probably 100 or so, but this one stands out!

At a lengthy 2 hours 10 (if watching the full version), it doesn't slow up, and is actually one of my most watched films. It also popularised the old 'Generals Mandate' theme song (the Chinese folk song) in Hong Kong in the early 90's, which was re-done by none other than George Lam.

Yuen Biao and Jacky Cheung are great too. I would recommend this one very much, and also worth seeing the second movie, but after that, they get worse and worse.

Rating (5/5)

Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: Ryoga
Date: 12/25/2001

Tsui Hark's masterpiece. This is the first of the 6 Once Upon A Time In China series. Jet Li's take on Wong Fei Hong is just terrific and very convincing. The fights are pretty decent and a lot of morals in the film. Also starring Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan and Kent Cheng.

Reviewed by: natty
Date: 07/30/2001
Summary: horrible

there is nothing much to say about this movie,coz to me it was a big dissapointed.can't see why other reviewers like it that much.jeez//

Reviewed by: nomoretitanic
Date: 03/12/2001
Summary: The Chinese People

This film is made by turn of century Chinese people to portray turn of century Chinese people (damn, what a tagline.)

Allow me to elaborate. The characters in this movie, aside from the Gwailo Mr. Jackson character, are very three-dimensional and archetypical at the same time. They each reveal a different Chinese mindset at the turn of the century. Master Wong tries to turn the other way and keep on being Chinese. Aunt Yee acknowledges the advanced technology of the Westerners and wants to like them, speaking like them and dress like them. Buckteeth is completely Americanized and he wants to find his root because he realizes that's who he is...then we've got our complex villains, I'm not gonna sit here and lecture you what the characters and the objects represent, you are smart enough to see for yourself.

I didn't care much for the choreography, two fights were exceptional, the one at night by the bonfire and the one in the rain, but the rest were so-so.

This movie carves the frustrated mindset of the turnof century Chinese stucked between East and West extremely well. It's especially powerful when the Hong Kongese are in the midst of worrying about 97 and all. Its sequels might be funnier or have Yuen Wo-Ping fights, but this one will remain as an important piece documenting the mindset of the Chinese.

Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 02/18/2001
Summary: Quite good

I wont' say much about this since the other reviewers have but i thought this movie was good!!

Action was first rate and the plot was good too but i did feel like it was a long movie, which it is!! About 2 hours!!

I think the whole series (which i have seen 1-6) is a great introduction to kung fu movies and all worth watching!!


Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: dragyn
Date: 02/18/2001
Summary: Hmm...

OK, I don't particularly like Jet Li, although I can appreciate that he is a brilliant martial artist. The movie works for me the same way: I don't like the movie, but I can appreciate that it is a good one.

When I first saw the artistic, haunting, beautiful opening scenes, I thought it was going to be really good, but for me it all went downhill from there. I felt that Tsui Hark postured to make "Once Upon A Time" into an artistic film, but really, as with all Kung Fu movies, any artistic content was only there to kick the fights along.

Another problem is that I really don't like wire-fu, and I found the needlessly slowed-down fights really boring. I wished the fights were full-speed, especially with someone as usually lightning-quick as Jet Li.

Basically, I think this is probably a really great movie, starring a great fighter. Unfortunately, I don't like it or its star, but that's just personal.


Reviewer Score: 2

Reviewed by: Fhrx
Date: 03/29/2000
Summary: Quite a good little adventure...

Jet Li stars in Tsui Hark’s story about Wong Fei Hong, one of China's most talented martial artist / doctors around the turn of the century. The film is set back in the Ching Dynasty and is beautifully done with sets that look perfect for the period as well as suiting the movie very well as well.

OUATIC is heavy with political themes, running from power jealous guard commanders to slave trading foreigners and although it doesn’t contain as many hardcore action scenes as some of Li’s offerings, there are still plenty of them and the plot and cast in my opinion make up for any shortcomings in the action department.

When the actions scenes are on however, believe me, they’re awesome. Rosamund Kwon stars as Li’s aunt (by name only) who develops an interest in Wong through out the movie and is kidnapped towards the end of the movie, making for a great showdown when Wong finds out about it and comes to her rescue.

Yuen Biao is also among the cast but does not perform all that much, only having a couple of minutes of on screen fights.

And to that a rival Sifu (Master) and it all adds up to be a great action / drama movie. The ensuring fight between Wong and rival Master Yim is still one that remains in my head every time someone mentions Jet Li. It’s a visual stunner, being in three dimensions thanks to a little bit of wire work and a ton of ladders.

Over all I give Once upon a time in China 8/10

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: SUPERCOP
Date: 12/27/1999
Summary: Another terrific Tsui Hark epic....

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.

Reviewed by: jfierro
Date: 12/21/1999

It's 134 minutes...and I felt every one pass slowly. Incomprehensible plot, overly dramatic, and too few fight scenes. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now. Shoot me.

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

This is a spectacular retelling of the adventures of a legendary Ching Dynasty hero Wong Fey Hong and his small band of loyal followers. It is the closing quarter of the last century and China is beginning to feel a growing swell of Western influence. Foreign culture and religion are upsetting the traditional order, and firearms are threatening the omnipotence of the martial arts. Wong's small local militia is to be disbanded by a new regional commander who sees it as a threat to his power, and to his possibly lucrative relationship with foreign traders. A woman for whom Wong has long cared is captured aboard one of the foreign ships. A spectacular battle ensues to defeat the foreigners and their mercenaries and rescue the girl.

[Reviewed by Rim Films Catalog]

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

Recent film on the life of one of the greatest martial artists ofthe last century. Great action scenes. The whole series has heavy political overtones. Started a spate of new Wong Fey Hung movies (though there have been many other films about him in the past.)

[Reviewed by Anonymous]

Reviewed by: spinali
Date: 12/08/1999
Summary: NULL

Jet Li plays Wong Fei-Hong who tries to mediate as colonial powers start to carve up China between them, with triads finishing the butchery. Capped by a dazzling fight in a granary while balancing on bamboo ladders.


[Reviewed by Steve Spinali]

Reviewer Score: 6